This decision concerns a method for determining a technical stop of a vehicle. However, the Board did not grant a patent, because the application allegedly merely provides a solution to a non-technical problem, namely fleet managing. 

Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 1411/21 (DETERMINING A TECHNICAL STOP OF A VEHICLE/TARGA) of July 25, 2023, of the Technical Board of Appeal 3.4.02.

Key takeaways

The fact that a task involves technical entities does not necessarily render the task itself technical.

Heuristic approaches that do not require technical knowledge are non-technical..

The invention

The invention concerns a system for determining technical stops of vehicles. Technical stops refer to periods of time when a vehicle becomes unavailable for use due to technical malfunctions or other issues. The system includes a method, server, computer program, vehicle, and system that work together to automatically record and process information from vehicles, allowing fleet managers to accurately and autonomously detect technical stops.

The system may be particularly useful for long-term hire companies and vehicle fleet managers who need to optimize their operations and efficiency. By detecting technical stops with high accuracy and promptly, fleet managers can have a general view of the operating status of a fleet of vehicles and decide how to allocate the use and operation of one or more other vehicles of the fleet.

Fig. 7 of EP 3 422 299 A1

  • Claim 1 of Auxiliary Request II

Is it patentable?

It was common ground that claim 1 includes the underlined distinguishing features compared to the closest prior art (please refer to the claim overview).

Regarding the technical effect of said features as well as the technical problem to be solved, the Appellant argued:

Starting from document D1, the effect of the differentiating features was to simply and accurately detect downtime of vehicles belonging to a fleet. Therefore, the objective technical problem was to implement an automatic detection of downtime of vehicles of a fleet.

Regarding the technicality of said features, the Appellant stated that means such as geofencing, position and diagnostic data were undisputedly technical.

Regarding the definition of the term “technical stop” the Appellant further argued:

Although the background section of the description contained a general definition with respect to stops due to nontechnical reasons, the invention as claimed focused on stops caused by technical faults or technical maintenance. Since the claims defined the stop only in relation to parameters related to a technical malfunction or a technical maintenance, the feature “technical stop” was technical and contributed to the presence of an inventive step.

Once the presence of a technical stop has been accurately detected, the maintenance of other vehicles can be reprogrammed so that a sufficient number of vehicles remain in use within the fleet and/or other vehicles can be (re)assigned to users in order to maintain the utilisation of the fleet at an appropriate level. In this way, an efficient use of fleet resources could be achieved, which was a fundamental technical optimisation.

However, the Board did not follow these arguments. While the Board agreed that geofencing, position and diagnostic data are technical, these concepts were already known in the prior art and can thus not contribute to the presence of an inventive step.

With respect to the term “technical stop”, the Board stated (emphasis added):

Claim 1 defines that it is “generated by a breakdown or by routine or special maintenance”. As further explained in the application, a “technical stop” is a concept used, for example, by long-term hire companies to optimise the efficiency of fleet utilisation (see page 2, first paragraph). Therefore, the board agrees with the examining division that a “technical stop” is not a technical feature.

Furthermore, the claimed rule for determining a “technical stop” is not based on technical but rather on administrative considerations. In the present case, this rule is defined, for example, by a fleet manager who decides that a “technical stop” occurs when a vehicle is in a maintenance centre while there is a malfunction in the vehicle.

With respect to the determination of a “technical stop”, the claim defines the following two conditions which must be met simultaneously in order for a “technical stop” to be present:

“Entry status”: The vehicle is in a maintenance centre.

“Secondary status”: Indicating a situation of malfunction.

The board agrees with the examining division’s reasoning: the claimed determination is based on a heuristic approach which does not solve any particular technical problem. Such a rule may be based on experience and common sense, but it does not require technical knowledge of the vehicle or the central data collection system. Technical considerations may only come into play when such heuristics or rules are implemented in a technical system.

Furthermore, the Board stated (emphasis added):

Managing a fleet is not a technical task simply because it involves technical entities (vehicles). A fleet manager who checks and manages the availability of vehicles in a fleet is not performing a technical task but a business task.

As set out above, the differentiating features are considered to be non-technical. The non-technical features of a claim may be incorporated into a goal to be achieved in a non-technical field.

In conclusion, the board is of the opinion that, starting from document D1, the skilled person is faced with the non-technical problem of determining whether a technical stop is present, based on the rule that the vehicle is in a maintenance centre and sends information indicating a malfunction.

Finally, the Board stated that the skilled person starting from D1 in search for a solution to this non-technical problem, only had to implement the rules for determining the presence of a “technical stop” in the computer system, which is well within the routine capabilities of the person skilled in the art and does not contribute to the presence of an inventive step.

Therefore, the Board concluded that claim 1 lacks inventive step with respect to document D1 (Article 56 EPC).

More information

You can read the full decision here: T 1411/21 (DETERMINING A TECHNICAL STOP OF A VEHICLE/TARGA) of July 25, 2023, of the Technical Board of Appeal 3.4.02.

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