Patent Focus: Foreign Automakers Toyota, BMW and Audi

Foreign manufacturers of automobiles include many companies with respected brand names within the industry. In fact, the top three automobile manufacturers based on number of vehicles produced in 2011 were Germany’s Volkswagen, Japan’s Toyota Motor Company and South Korea’s Hyundai. As these companies grow in strength and size, many of them, including Toyota and Germany’s Bayerische Motoren Worke, or BMW, are currently contemplating increasing factory operations in North America, especially in Mexico.

Last week we took a look at recent patents of the Big Three U.S. Automakers. Today, as part of our Companies We Follow series, we’re taking a look at a few foreign car makers to get an idea of what we can expect in upcoming vehicle models from overseas. We’ve researched patent applications and issued patents from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office to get some sense about the newest technologies coming from Toyota, BMW and Audi, also of Germany.

Some of these developments aid drivers and improve their routing while out on the road. An issued patent from the USPTO gives BMW rights over a system of broadcasting traffic data to inform drivers about optimal speed based on stoplight schedules and other drivers. An Audi patent application protects an adjustable front-facing camera that can scan various ranges in front of the car to determine obstacles. A Toyota patent application would protect a system of improving routing results based on road work or other road obstacles.

Better fuel systems and entertainment access are other goals that some of these vehicle manufacturers are working towards. BMW is hoping to patent a user display that allows drivers to access entertainment systems without having to take their eyes off the road. Finally, we explore a Toyota patent application that would protect a system of maintaining a hydrogen fuel cell’s temperature within an optimal range for fuel operation.


Traffic Broadcast System
U.S. Patent No. 8504270

Computer analysis of traffic patterns is highly sought by many motorists because of the ability to better react to upcoming traffic and re-route in case of jams or accidents. There are some onboard computer systems that can receive radio broadcasts containing digital traffic information for routing, but these are delivered point-to-point directly to a car instead of unidirectionally through multi-broadcast, which would reach more cars more cheaply. Most cars can receive FM radio transmissions, but these broadcasts aren’t useful for re-routing as the radio signal doesn’t usually contain the digital traffic data required for computer analysis.

The USPTO recently awarded a patent to BMW for a traffic broadcast system that sends data signals for predicting traffic models. A database gathers local traffic information and generates a broadcast signal containing traffic density, light signal schedules and more. This data is analyzed by the vehicle’s computer to generate optimal speedometer ranges and any routing changes a driver should take on a display screen.

Claim 1 of this patent gives BMW the right to protect:

“A traffic broadcast system for broadcasting traffic information, comprising: a traffic broadcast module having a traffic database module for gathering traffic data including upcoming traffic light schedules, traffic density, and traffic emergency issues along a predetermined path of travel and an electronic device capable of transmitting broadcast signals of the traffic data across a broadcast area; a vehicle having a traffic receiver module that receives and analyzes broadcast signals having traffic data relevant to the vehicle with respect to the vehicle’s position and direction and having a vehicle processing unit that determines an upcoming light schedule for the next upcoming light and subsequent lights on the predetermined path of travel according to the traffic data sent in the broadcast signals; and a display module having a key indicating for a speedometer that informs a user of the vehicle a speed range to maintain a right of way through a next upcoming light and subsequent lights on the predetermined path of travel and a status section that displays a status of the next upcoming light and subsequent upcoming lights along the predetermined path of travel.”


Time-Of-Flight Camera for a Motor Vehicle and Method for Operating…
U.S. Patent Application No. 20130211672

Time-Of-Flight cameras are used on vehicle systems as they’re capable of capturing an image and interpreting it for important data about the relative speed of other vehicles or any collision risks. The camera sends out a light pulse in the direction that a vehicle is traveling and records the time it takes for light waves to travel forward, hit an object and travel back. From this, a vehicle’s computer can analyze the distance between the vehicle and an object in front of it, as well as the time it would take for impact at the car’s current speed.

Audi has recently filed this patent application with the USPTO to protect a system of improving Time-Of-Flight camera operation in response to certain driving conditions. A piezoelectric actuating device in the system allows the illumination field to be adjusted, so that the Time-Of-Flight camera can scan a wider or smaller area in front of the car. The shorter field could be used to detect road signs, while the larger field of vision would better suit highway driving with more cars at higher speeds.

As Claim 1 explains, Audi is seeking to protect:

“A Time-Of-Flight camera for a motor vehicle, comprising: an illumination unit for illuminating an illuminated area, said illumination unit including a light source and an optic; a camera unit constructed for detecting the light emitted by the light source as reflected light, and for analyzing the reflected light and the emitted light to obtain measuring data including a distance information; at least one actuating device operably connected to the optic for adjusting the illumination area; and a control unit for controlling the actuation device as a function of at least one operating parameter describing a driving situation of the motor vehicle.”


Method for Selecting a List Element
U.S. Patent Application No. 20130205258

Cars manufactured within the past decade often have multiple onboard systems that a driver can interact with through a user display screen. Besides the dashboard elements that include the speedometer and gas gauge, multiple entertainment systems for audio and video playback are often installed on premium car models. Interacting with these many displays, and having to select multiple options for any system, can cause driver distraction and contribute to dangerous traffic.


This patent application, filed by BMW with the USPTO, describes a system of improved user interface for entertainment and navigation systems on a car. This system uses two display units, one working as a heads-up display for speed and other basic car information, the other as an interface for other onboard systems. Users interact with the screen through a rotating element. Rotating scrolls through a list one click at a time, so drivers can scroll without having to look at the list too often. The rotary element can be pushed in to select an option.

Claim 1 of this patent application would give BMW legal protections over:

 “A method for selecting a list element from a list comprising a multiplicity of list elements and being displayable at least in an extract form in a motor vehicle, the method comprising the acts of: providing first and second visual display units viewable by a driver of the motor vehicle; providing an operating device actuatable by the driver of the motor vehicle to generate upward/downward commands and selection commands; displaying the list on the first display unit of the motor vehicle; moving a first preselection region within the displayed list on the first display unit upwards/downwards in correspondence with first upwards/downwards commands that are received as a result of actuations of the operating device by the driver, the first preselection region highlighting several list elements in the list; displaying a sublist exclusively comprising the list elements highlighted by the first preselection region on the second display unit of the motor vehicle upon receiving a first selection command as a result of an actuation of the operating device by the driver; moving a second preselection region within the sublist displayed on the second display unit upwards/downwards in correspondence with second upwards/downwards commands received as a result of an actuation of the operating device by the driver, the second preselection region highlighting a single list element of the sublist; and selecting the single list element highlighted by the second preselection region upon receiving a second selection command as a result of an actuation of the operating device by the driver.”


Fuel Supply System
U.S. Patent Application No. 20130206527

Many car manufacturers have looked into building vehicles that utilize fuel cell systems that run off of hydrogen gas, which can be operated without creating as much carbon exhaust as a typical gas-powered vehicle. As hydrogen fuel is extracted from the tank to power the vehicle, expansion of the hydrogen gas can dramatically reduce the temperature within the holding tank. Heat-transfer members can be used to combat this and maintain fuel operability, but it takes up space within the tank and adds weight.

The fuel supply system laid out in this patent application from Toyota uses a high pressure storage system that is able to prevent against drastic temperature drops when hydrogen fuel is extracted from a tank. A temperature sensor can measure the change in temperature when fuel is extracted. If the temperature drops below a certain threshold, an actuator on the main valve is instructed to close or reduce the stream of fuel consumed by the vehicle.

As Claim 1 of this patent application states, Toyota is seeking to protect:

“A fuel supply system that supplies fuel gas, comprising: a fuel gas tank in which the fuel gas is stored at high pressure; a temperature detecting portion that detects a temperature inside the fuel gas tank; a fuel gas discharge flow path that is connected to the fuel gas tank; a main stop valve that is provided in the fuel gas discharge flow path; and a control portion that controls opening and closing of the main stop valve, wherein the main stop valve includes an inlet portion through which the fuel gas flows in and an outlet portion through which the fuel gas flows out, a main valve that is arranged between the inlet portion and the outlet portion and that opens and closes the fuel gas discharge flow path, a pilot flow path that is provided so as to communicate the inlet portion with the outlet portion, a pilot valve that opens and closes the pilot flow path, and an actuator capable of opening and closing the main valve and the pilot valve at different timings, and wherein the pilot flow path and the pilot valve are formed inside the main valve, and wherein the control portion opens the pilot valve and closes the main valve when a detected temperature detected by the temperature detecting portion is equal to or lower than a first reference temperature.”


Course Determination System and Driving Assist System of a Vehicle
U.S. Patent Application No. 20130218369

Navigational systems provide drivers with a route between their current location and a given destination, often using a global positioning system (GPS) to locate the car’s current position. However, deviations sometime happen on an actual drive that aren’t reflected in map software programs, such as road work or other obstacles. When a driver is diverted off path because of one of these, the course determination system thinks that a driver has deviated from a course and often suggests tips for returning to the determined course that are useless.

Toyota recently filed this patent application for a system of improving a course determination system by detecting obstacles in the road ahead of a driver and incorporating that information into the vehicle’s determined route. This system uses a radar device and a vehicle exterior camera to detect physical obstacles ahead of a vehicle. This data is collected and presented to an obstacle information processing unit, which can inform the routing software that an obstacle will require a slight path deviation.

Claim 1 of this Toyota patent application would protect:

“A course determining system of a vehicle for determining a running course as a path along which the vehicle can run, comprising: detecting means for detecting an object that is present around the vehicle; determining means for determining, when a plurality of the objects are detected by the detecting means, whether a passable road which the vehicle can enter is present between said plurality of the objects; and course determining means for determining the running course based on at least one road including the passable road between the objects, wherein, if it is determined by determining means that there is no road which the vehicle can enter, between the plurality of objects, the plurality of objects is determined as a single object; if it is determined by the determining means that a road which the vehicle can enter is present between the plurality of objects, the plurality of objects are not determined as a single object, and the course determining means determines the running course of the vehicle based on roads including the passable road located between the plurality of objects; and if the vehicle is going to proceed into space between the plurality of objects when no road which the vehicle can enter is present between the plurality of objects, a driving assisting process is carried our, and if the vehicle is going to proceed into space between the plurality of objects when a road which the vehicle can enter is present between the plurality of objects, the driving assisting process is not carried out.”


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Join the Discussion

6 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Mark Nowotarski]
    Mark Nowotarski
    September 8, 2013 10:14 am

    It looks like there were 120 million ebikes in China as of 2010.

    There are over 1000 Chinese utility models with “electric bicycle” in the title.

    This might be a good vehicle (pun intended) for educating IP watchdog readers on Chinese utility models.

  • [Avatar for Chris Neumeyer]
    Chris Neumeyer
    September 7, 2013 06:36 am

    Still investigating, but here’s an outstanding site on electric bikes, with lots of fascinating info on e-bikes generally, including many built by auto companies: In particular, here’s one page from that site with great photos of e-bikes made by Ford, VW, Porsche, Lexus, Toyota, Honda, Yamaha, Audi, BMW.

    Who would’ve guessed? But, as one reader said there, while those automotive models are very beautiful machines, perhaps they’re nothing more than marketing gimmicks, though it looks like e-bikes generally may have broader potential and certainly appear to have some very talented advocates designing, building and marketing them.

  • [Avatar for Chris Neumeyer]
    Chris Neumeyer
    September 7, 2013 04:40 am

    Yes, very interesting Steve, Gene and Mark. Of course bike design and manufacturing are big business here in Taiwan (and China), and I occasionally see electric bikes on the road, but it doesn’t seem to be a hot trend as far as I can tell, and I never would have guessed auto companies are interested in them, but I’ll look into it and let you know what I learn.

  • [Avatar for Mark Nowotarski]
    Mark Nowotarski
    September 6, 2013 12:31 pm

    Super. Thanks.

  • [Avatar for Gene Quinn]
    Gene Quinn
    September 6, 2013 09:22 am


    Interesting question.

    Let me follow up with our patent searchers, as well as Chris Neumeyer who writes monthly for us about issues in Asia. I will see if we can get an article together on this point. My guess is that this is probably far more of a China play.


  • [Avatar for Mark Nowotarski]
    Mark Nowotarski
    September 4, 2013 05:26 pm


    Fascinating stuff on the high tech end. Have you looked at the low end? I’m seeing a bunch of design patents on bicycles by the big auto makers. The designers all seems to be Germans & Slovakians. The frames look like they have room for batteries.

    Is there a big electric bicycle trend going on in Europe that we in the US aren’t aware of? If Big Auto is getting US design patents on electric bicycles, will we be seeing more of them soon?

    USD685683 “Electric Bicycle”, General Motors
    USD672690 “Bicycle Frame” , BMW
    USD670208 “Bicycle” , Daimler
    USD667347 “Bicycle Frame” , Porsche

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