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Patent Watch: The Big Three U.S. Automakers

Written by Steve Brachmann
Freelance Journalist
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Posted: August 29, 2013 @ 2:26 pm
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The American auto industry has dealt with trying times recently, most notably with the announcement of Detroit’s Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. The state of Michigan is home to the group of auto manufacturers known as the Big Three: General Motors in Detroit, MI; Chrysler in nearby Auburn Hills, MI; and Ford, headquartered in Dearborn, a close suburb of Detroit.

However, these companies have been reporting strong gains in the face of larger economic problems plaguing their region. General Motors, having spent a year away from Super Bowl advertising, will be returning to that very recognizable collection of major marketing campaigns during the 2014 game. Current estimates are pricing a 30-second commercial spot at $4 million, up from $3.8 the year prior. Ford has also been showing off its corporate strength, especially in the European market, where a bounceback from corporate losses sustained last year has been increasing hopes for the company.

Today at IPWatchdog in the Companies We Follow Series, we’re looking at the Big Three to see what developmental goals these companies are planning for the future. Many deal with better systems of obtaining vehicle repairs. Ford has been issued a patent pertaining to online service scheduling for vehicle repair. As well, General Motors has filed a patent application for a system of vehicle repair that provides better resources than a typical service manual.

We also explore three patent applications related to improvements in the driving experience. Two of these deal with safety: Chrysler has a patent application filed to prevent unintended operation of the gas or brake pedals, and Ford is seeking to protect a new airbag design that better prevents neck and head trauma. Finally, General Motors has filed an application to protect a telematics system providing contact information for known drivers within a certain proximity.

 

System and Method for Detecting Unintended Stimulus at a Vehicle Pedal
U.S. Patent Application No. 20130218404

The driver of a car usually operates the accelerator and brakes by operating foot pedals located beneath the vehicle’s steering wheel. Sometimes, a floor mat or another object may encounter the pedal instead of the driver’s foot. This can create a dangerous situation where the accelerator or brakes are operated without the driver’s knowledge.

The Chrysler Group has filed this patent application with the USPTO to protect a system of detecting an unintended stimulus on a foot pedal so as to prevent an object from engaging either the accelerator or brake. This system uses multiple sensors to detect the object that is pressing down on a foot pedal, including an image sensor that views the foot pedal from above. If these sensors detect than an object other than the driver’s foot has engaged a pedal, the unintended stimulus cannot affect the car’s speed.

Claim 1 of this patent application would give Chrysler the right to protect:

“A method for monitoring a vehicle pedal comprising: determining whether a stimulus has been detected at the vehicle pedal; when the stimulus has been detected: receiving sensor data from a sensor system, the sensor data being indicative of a shape of the stimulus; determining whether the shape of the stimulus corresponds to an unintended object based on the sensor data; and when the shape of the stimulus corresponds to an unintended stimulus, performing an unintended stimulus operation.”

 

Airbag with Tethered Slit
U.S. Patent Application No. 20130214518

An airbag is deployed during an accident to protect a driver from injury during collision. The airbag provides a protective barrier that cushions the impact of a driver against a steering wheel or door. A five-star airbag rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is desirable to customers who want to be assured of their protection while driving. The NHTSA’s vehicle crash testing system uses a Combined Probability of Injury (CPI) metric that measures the force of an airbag on a person’s head and neck.

This patent application, filed by Ford with the USPTO, would protect a new airbag design that includes a slit which minimizes the airbag’s impact on a person’s head. When a front airbag is deployed, it opens so that a central slit can accommodate the forward motion of a person’s head. This slit is sewn into the bag so that the airbag still cushions a body and doesn’t just separate at the slit.

As Claim 1 explains, Ford wants to protect:

“An airbag apparatus comprising: an airbag having a front panel and a base end; a cutout in the front panel; a slit member having an outer perimeter attached to an inner perimeter of the cutout, the slit member having a predetermined length, width and depth, the slit member being defined by a first panel having first and second edges and a second panel having third and fourth edges, the first edge of the first panel is attached to a portion of the inner perimeter of the cutout, the third edge of the second panel is attached to the second edge of the first panel and the fourth edge of the second panel is attached to another portion of the inner perimeter of the cutout, whereby the outer perimeter of the slit member is defined by the first edge of the first panel and the fourth edge of the second panel; a first tether being attached between a backside of the slit member at the second edge of the first panel and the third edge of the second panel, the first tether also being attached at an inner surface of the airbag opposing the backside of the slit member and maintaining the predetermined depth of the slit member.”

Online Method and System for Advising Customers on Service Needs, Facilitating the Scheduling of Vehicle Service Appointments, and Checking Vehicle Service Status
U.S. Patent No. 8521654

There are many drawbacks to conventional methods of scheduling service appointments for a vehicle. For one, a person must manually call a mechanic during their regular business hours to make an appointment, which may be inconvenient. Miscommunication between a caller and a service technician can lead to errors in scheduling an appointment or the kind of service rendered on a vehicle. Online methods of scheduling service appointments exist, but services like myautogarage.com still can create scheduling redundancies and other issues because users must setup multiple calendars.

Recently, the USPTO issued a patent to Ford to protect a system of online vehicle service scheduling that provides a much more uniform platform of communication than other methods. Car owners can access an online database where they enter a service request and symptoms of car trouble that they want checked. This request is sent to a dealer management system, which looks at a dealer provider’s schedule and returns open appointments that the car owner can choose for service scheduling.

Claim 1 of this patent gives Ford legal protections over:

“A computer-implemented method comprising: receiving a service request, a scheduled maintenance request, a recall request or a vehicle status request at a dealer management system (DMS); receiving, at the DMS, a real-time ongoing vehicle repair status check; accessing, through the DMS, a database containing the real-time ongoing vehicle repair status; and transmitting, from the DMS to a user computer, the real-time ongoing vehicle repair status.”

 

Method of Providing Information to a Vehicle
U.S. Patent Application No. 20130158778

Telematics, which deals with the transmission of computerized information across long distances, can provide useful information to drivers while they’re out on the road. A telematics unit within a car can provide a map display showing the car’s location and any surrounding restaurants, hotels or other entities. These units may also be capable of providing advertisements and other content, with or without driver approval.

General Motors has filed this patent application to protect a system of using telematics systems to identify other drivers on the road, as well as means of communicating with other drivers. In-vehicle systems can identify other proximate entities travelling close to a car with a telematics system, and that data can be uploaded to a server. This server analyzes the data to determine if the driver and the other entity have a relationship through an online social service like Facebook or Twitter. If that person has made forms of communication available, such as e-mail or a phone number, a driver using the telematics system would be able to store that contact information within the car.

As Claim 1 describes, GM is looking to earn the right to protect:

“A method of providing information to a vehicle, comprising: selecting content, and a source from which the information is retrievable, the information pertaining to the content and the content being associated with an entity; tracking the vehicle in real time, the tracking being accomplished via a telematics unit operatively disposed in the vehicle; via the telematics unit, uploading data obtained from the tracking to an offboard server, the data including at least a then-current location and a then-current speed of the vehicle; via a processor associated with the offboard server, utilizing the data to identify the entity that is within proximity of the vehicle; via the offboard server, obtaining the information from the selected content source, the information being associated with the entity that is within proximity of the vehicle; transmitting the information from the offboard server to the telematics unit; and displaying the information to the vehicle so that the information is associated with an object representing the entity, the object being within a field of view of a vehicle occupant, and the displaying including presenting any of text or graphics as an augmented overlay on or adjacent to the object representing the entity.”

 

Repair Assist System for Vehicle Servicing
U.S. Patent Application No. 20130124032

As we discussed above in the section about Ford’s online service scheduling patent, human miscommunication can create a lot of problems during the repair process. A service technician may misinterpret the fault and replace a component that doesn’t solve the problem. Also, service manuals that are supposed to include information about repair procedures may include techniques that become outdated over the course of the car’s service life.

General Motors has filed this patent application with the USPTO to protect a system of diagnosing the root cause of a fault and providing technicians with updated information on how to solve the problem. In this system, a repair assistant module is setup to receive diagnostic trouble codes from a vehicle. This module would communicate with a knowledge-based module that contains updated information about vehicle fault issues as well as repair procedures.

Claim 1 of this patent application would give General Motors the right to protect:

“A vehicle repair assist system for repairing a vehicle fault in a vehicle comprising: a symptom input module for entering vehicle symptom information relating to the fault; a diagnostic code module for retrieving diagnostic trouble codes from the vehicle, the diagnostic trouble codes being generated in response to a fault occurrence; a knowledge-based fault module for identifying potential causes of the vehicle fault based on at least one of the symptom information and diagnostic trouble codes; and a repair assistant module for identifying recommended repair parts and repair procedures for repairing the cause of the vehicle fault, the repair assistant module communicating with the knowledge-based fault module for obtaining a prioritized listing of the recommended repair parts and repair procedures for repairing the vehicle fault.”

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About the Author

Steve Brachmann is a writer located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than five years. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. He also provides website copy and documents for various business clients.

 

 


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