Tesla Motors Inc. (NASDAQ:TSLA) of Palo Alto, CA, is a leading innovator in the fields of electric vehicles (EVs) and energy storage systems which has been having a very successful run in the past few weeks. The company’s soon to be released Model S P85D electric sedan just earned the highest Consumer Reports rating for a vehicle, earning 103 points on a 100-point scale and essentially requiring the independent consumer product review publication to reformulate its rating system. Although that car is likely to retail at prices over $100,000, Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently announced the development of a low-end electric sedan that will cost around $35,000. These electric vehicles are rated to travel about 200 miles on a full charge although a duo from Denmark claimed that they took a Tesla Model S for a drive of more than 450 miles on one charge.
Tesla’s lithium ion battery technologies are also gearing up to have a huge effect on energy markets outside of vehicle. The company’s Powerwall home energy storage systems might run into competition from sometimes-partner Panasonic Corporation (OTCMKTS:PCRFY) in Europe, a continent where both companies may market home battery products. In America, Tesla has been leading the way in the nascent energy storage industry, a sector which saw a six-fold increase in deployment in the second quarter of 2015 alone.
At IPWatchdog we’ve been very critical about some Elon Musk doublespeak on the subject of patents. Last June, he offered to open source all of Tesla’s patented technologies in a blog post that equated earning a patent to buying a ticket to a lawsuit. Musk maintains that he has avoided patents since leaving a business venture in 1999 but we’ve been pointing out how companies in which he holds a large interest have been acquiring IP and filing new patent applications themselves. In fact, as the IP portfolio analysis tools from Innography show us, Tesla has earned 27 patents thus far in 2015, making it pretty clear that Elon Musk is doing an awful job of avoiding patents, which really has to make you wonder what is behind his anti-patent rhetoric. Certainly his hatred of patents doesn’t extend to the innovations of his own company, which at the very least means Musk is engaging in a “do as I say not as I do” approach to patents.
Regardless of Musk’s patent hypocrisy, Tesla will likely get its first test on how well it can stand copycat products from American and Chinese companies in the market with a number of rivals from both countries looking to unveil electric vehicles in the next few years. Maybe Musk’s view of the patent system will change as Tesla becomes challenged in the marketplace. Only time will tell.
Tesla’s Issued Patents: Environmental Controls for Battery Packs and Aerodynamic Door Handles
Controlling the environmental conditions within which a battery operates is of great importance to a longer service life, as is reflected within U.S. Patent No. 9040184, titled Battery Pack Dehumidifier with Active Reactivation System. The battery pack dehumidifier system disclosed here includes a battery pack enclosure holding a plurality of batteries and a dehumidifier comprised of an enclosure holding a desiccant, an air passageway coupling the desiccant enclosure to the battery pack enclosure which allows the desiccant to absorb water vapor, a controller that estimates when the desiccant loses absorption/adsorption efficacy, a heater assembly that heats the desiccant to release water vapor and reactivate it and a second air passageway coupling the desiccant to a volume of air outside of the battery pack to release moisture. This innovation intends to provide a maintenance-free humidity control for EV battery packs that serve throughout the life of the vehicle. Ensuring a proper level of temperature in a battery is the focal point of U.S. Patent No. 8968949, titled Method of Withdrawing Heat from a Battery Pack. This patent claims a method of withdrawing heat by coupling electrically and thermally conductive tabs of each battery cell to the surface of a common current collector plate, conducting electricity and thermal energy through those conductive tabs, coupling a second surface of the common current collector plate to a first surface of a thermal interface layer, coupling a second surface of the thermal interface layer to a temperature control panel and transferring thermal energy from the conductive tabs towards the temperature control panel. Excessive battery heating during charging and discharging can negatively impact battery life, which this innovation seeks to improve.
We noted an interesting technology that uses a battery pack’s configuration to improve rider safety in some collisions, discussed within U.S. Patent No. 9045030, titled System for Absorbing and Distributing Side Impact Energy Utilizing an Integrated Battery Pack. The patent protects an energy absorbing and distributing side impact system for a vehicle which includes a battery pack enclosure with side and cross members mounted between a vehicle’s front and rear suspensions; the cross members segregate the battery pack into sections, each of which hold an individual battery module. The cross members used in this battery pack configuration help to absorb and distribute at least a portion of a side impact.
Luxury interior touches such as a touch-screen interactive display are also the focus of Tesla R&D to judge by U.S. Patent No. 9079498, issued under the title Morphing Vehicle User Interface. The method of operating a vehicle user interface protected here involves providing a touch-screen display within the vehicle, displaying a vehicle subsystem interface on the display and displaying a plurality of touch-screen function controllers which correspond to vehicle subsystems and interactive to display an active input region. This innovation seeks to provide vehicle owners with a touch-screen display that has a high degree of customizability.
No area of car design is too slight to be improved aerodynamically as readers can see within U.S. Patent No. 9103143, titled Door Handle Apparatus for Vehicles. The door handle assembly disclosed here includes a door handle formed from a planar handle member, a motor and a swing arm with upper and lower dual fork portions which are rotatably coupled to a handle base member; the swing arm is extended and retracted by the motor. The patent points out how door handles are an area of vehicle design which are not
optimized to reduce aerodynamic drag. An improved seating assembly for Tesla’s EVs are at the center of U.S. Patent No. 8973965, which is titled Folding and Stowing Rear-Facing Vehicle Seat. This patent protects a rear-facing seat for a vehicle that includes a seat portion connected to the vehicle by a hinge so that the seat can assume stowed and unstowed positions and a back portion connected to the seat which assumes up and down positions by engaging with either a first or second striker. This innovation was pursued to improve cargo space within EVs.
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Patent Applications of Note: From Fast Charging Systems to More Vehicle Door Handle Innovation
Fast charging techniques for EVs were featured in a couple of recently published patent applications filed by Tesla. U.S. Patent Application No. 20150077057, titled Low Temperature Fast Charge, would protect a method of determining whether a fast charging process transferring energy of rates of at least 1C is possible for a battery pack, charging the battery pack using the process if possible and charging the battery pack at rates of less than 1C if the fast charging process is not possible. This innovation provides a method by which fast charging techniques can be applied without risking damage to the battery. Fast charging of lithium ion battery packs is also discussed within U.S. Patent Application No. 20150171644, titled Fast Charging of Battery Using Adjustable Voltage Control. The method for charging a lithium ion cell disclosed here involves applying a constant first stage charging current greater than 1C until a first stage charging voltage is about equal to a first charge complete voltage and applying multiple second stage charging currents to the cell at different current levels after which a third stage charging current equal to the complete voltage of the second stage currents is applied. This innovation also seeks to reduce EV charging times without negatively impacting battery cycle life.
Tesla is also concerned with charging batteries safely as well as quickly, as readers can see within U.S. Patent Application No. 20150039255, entitled Methodology for Charging Batteries Safely. The fault-detection apparatus for a charging system that charges a collection of interconnected battery cells claimed here comprises a data-acquisition system for receiving a set of temperature data parameters measured during a charge cycle, a monitoring system evaluating data parameters to identify a set of anomalous conditions and a controller comparing a set of anomalous conditions against a set of predetermined profiles indicative of an internal short within a cell. This technology for identifying the presence of a short circuit in a battery pack is intended to prevent hazardous operation of the battery pack. Techniques for cooling a charging unit while it charges an EV are detailed within U.S. Patent Application No. 20150217654, titled Cooling of Charging Cable. This would protect a charging system for an EV that includes a power supply, a charging conductor cable connected at one end to a power supply and having a cooling conduit and a connector attached to the cable’s second end. The cooling conduit is configured to hold a cooling fluid that helps to dissipate the heat created when charging an electric vehicle at high continuous currents.
Lithium ion battery cell caps which provide cathode terminals and other electronic components are at the center of U.S. Patent Application No. 20150147600, which is titled Cap for Electrochemical Cell. The electrochemical cell that would be protected here includes a cell can, an electrolyte and a cap closing one end of the cell can, the cap having a substantially flat member, a separation portion and a diaphragm covering the separation portion on the substantially flat member. This cell cap configuration enables battery cell manufacturing processes which use fewer parts, making fabrication both faster and cheaper.
It doesn’t appear that Tesla is done with door handle innovation by the looks of U.S. Patent Application No. 20150035296, titled Controller Apparatus and Sensors for a Vehicle Door Handle. This patent application discloses a door handle assembly having a door handle formed from a planar handle member with two post portions, a swing arm coupled to distal ends of both post portions and rotatably attached to a shaft mounted to an inner surface of a vehicle door, an extension force sensor attached to the vehicle door’s inner surface which generates a signal in response to an extension force, a retraction force sensor attached to a lower portion of the swing arm which generates a signal in response to a retraction force and a handle controller that controls operation of the door handle assembly by processing the retraction and extension force signals. This sensor system is designed to respond to a person’s manual operation of a door handle so that the handle automatically extends or retracts as is needed.
Finally, we thought we’d share with our readers the active cooling system technology discussed within U.S. Patent Application No. 20150222162, entitled Pressurized and Gravity-Fed Liquid Cooling of Electric Motor. The liquid cooling system for an electric motor disclosed here includes a pump for liquid to cool the motor, a heat exchanger removing heat from the liquid, a manifold that receives the liquid under
pressure and extends above a stator of the motor and a first tray above first end turns of the stator onto which a liquid jet is directed from the manifold. The tray also has an opening to perform gravity-fed liquid distribution onto the first end turns. This invention provides a cooling system for a stator which includes complex components so that it doesn’t operate at unsafe temperature levels.