The General Motors Company of Detroit, MI, is a multinational corporation focused on the design, manufacture, distribution and marketing of vehicles all over the world. Globally, the company saw increased sales by two percent in 2014, getting a huge boost from the Chinese market where sales increased by 12 percent. Recalls have been a major stumbling block for the company over the past year and early January of this year saw recalls of three GM vehicle models totaling 83,572 vehicles recalled for a defective ignition lock actuator. Lower fuel prices may have contributed to GM’s decision to reduce production of fuel efficient models like the Chevy Sonic and the Buick Verano for 2015, although we’ll see that the lower pump prices haven’t affected the company’s R&D in fuel efficient and hybrid electric vehicles.
Today’s Companies We Follow column looks at General Motors recently issued patents and found a great deal of inventions related to telematics, an area of tremendous R&D focus across the global auto industry. Electric vehicles were the focus of another pair of patents that we explore below, including one for an electric bicycle with an enhanced anti-theft mechanism for the rechargeable batteries utilized by the energy storage system. We also discuss a patent protecting a system for enabling caravan communications for cars traveling towards the same destination.
The patent applications filed by GM with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office showcase a wide range of innovation in fuel cell vehicles and we discuss a couple, including one featuring a support system configuration that maximizes hydrogen fuel tank space. GM is also seeking to further enter the sphere of electric vehicle charging stations with one patent application filed for a station with automated charging functions. An improved microphone array for speech recognition and a climate control system enabled to control heating based on the heaviness of the clothing being worn by vehicle occupants are also discussed.
General Motors’ Issued Patents: Telematics, Anti-Theft Systems and Caravan Communications
We’ve taken a couple of glances in recent weeks at the patent portfolio put together by General Motors over the past few years. Our coverage of the Thomson Reuters State of Innovation in the Automotive Industry report showed us that patenting activities at GM have been increasing in strength over the past few years, earning the company a 7th-place finish among all auto companies for patents earned worldwide between 2009 and 2013. As that study points out, GM has a stronger portfolio in autonomous driving than most other companies in that field, including Google, which has been developing a much heralded driverless car program.
Using Innography’s research tools were able to create the text cluster diagram (shown left), which relates to GM patent activities since January 2010. This diagram quickly allows us to identify improvements and innovations relating to the motor vehicle itself as accounting for nearly half of all GM patent acting, which the single largest focus being on innovations relating to the vehicle body. The Innography diagram also shows that GM is quite active in exploring innovations relating to control modules, electric motors and internal combustion engines.
Much of the patent filings for GM are handled by subsidiary GM Global Technology Operations LLC, which earned 1,475 U.S. patents during 2014, placing it 22nd overall among all companies receiving patent grants from the USPTO that year. As GM’s corporate website reports, the corporation leads all companies in U.S. patents issued for clean energy technologies since 2002; within the auto industry, GM has led all companies in U.S. patent application filings for 11 straight quarters.
The General Motors Company itself doesn’t receive as many patents as its subsidiary, but what it does receive is largely focused on the topic of telematics, a “hot topic” area identified by the Thomson Reuters auto innovation report. Telematics deals with the long-distance transmission of computerized information, including but not limited to GPS technology and auto navigation systems. See Telematics (via Wikipedia).
The use of a telematics unit to improve cellular connections when attempting to reach emergency services is disclosed and protected by U.S. Patent No. 8755764, which is titled Extending the Range of Vehicular Cellular Communications. The method of carrying out communications using a vehicle telematics unit which is claimed here involves identifying a cellular base station in communication with a telematics unit, attempting an emergency call through the identified base station, determining that a forward link portion of a cellular signal has an insufficient strength and transmitting emergency communications using a reverse link portion of the cellular signal. This innovation extends the wireless range of a mobile device associated with a vehicle telematics unit so that the wireless device doesn’t determine that a wireless service is unavailable. Techniques for thwarting hackers from gaining unfettered access to a telematics unit and associated external devices are discussed within U.S. Patent No. 8868030, issued under the title Automated Vehicle Intrusion Device. This patent protects a method of identifying abnormal activity within a communication system between a vehicle and a wireless carrier system involves data analysis of calling data to determine the occurrence of an abnormal activity based upon predetermined call permutations that indicate event type and call type calling data. This system could be used to identify malicious attacks on a single mobile vehicle or those that target an entire wireless network.
Moving on to GM Global Tech patents, we found other innovations for foiling malicious attacks on a vehicle’s wireless networks outlined by U.S. Patent No. 8925083, which is titled Cyber Security in an Automotive Network. This technology is designed to inhibit the susceptibility of a vehicle data bus to spoofing attacks, which attempt to control vehicle behavior through the use of spoofed messages transmitted to the data bus. The patent claims a method for preventing spoofing in an automotive network by tracking a message created by the electronic control unit and transmitted on a bus, monitoring data packets for a plurality of messages to determine identifiers of corresponding electronic control units and transmitting a diagnostic message that instructs a module to take no action on the data packets if it’s determined that a tracked message wasn’t created by the electronic control unit indicated by the identifier.
Anti-theft security is another area of recent development at GM and we noted a novel system which is intended to be used with electric bicycles. U.S. Patent No. 8930054, which is titled Integrated Anti-Theft Device for an Electric Bicycle, was pursued to protect owners who have purchased electric bikes, which are fairly expensive and currently have no ideal means for securing an energy source which includes rechargeable batteries, one of the electric bike’s most expensive components. The patent protects a drive unit for an electric bicycle that has an electric motor and an energy storage device; the drive unit includes a locking mechanism for securing the energy storage device to the bicycle, a motor mechanically coupled to bike pedals and a control device which is operatively connected to a locking mechanism actuator and which also receives signals to release the energy storage device from the bicycle. More electric and hybrid vehicle technologies are on display with U.S. Patent No. 8935025, issued under the title Hybrid Battery Power Limit Control. The patent claims a method of providing an electrical charge to a vehicle traction battery that involves sensing the temperature of both the traction battery and a power inverter module, determining an expected voltage oscillation amplitude of the electric charge based on the sensed temperatures and calculating a maximum allowable nominal voltage of the charge by subtracting the expected amplitude from the maximum allowable voltage of the traction battery. This system for managing the power limit of a hybrid battery protects against damage that may be sustained by the battery when its internal chemistry is affected by extreme changes in temperature.
We also wanted to explore a patent issued for a technology that makes it easier for vehicles traveling in a caravan to communicate amongst each other. U.S. Patent No. 8930122, titled Methods and Systems for Associating Vehicles En Route to a Common Destination, claims a method of receiving a request from a first vehicle for identifying additional vehicles en route along a common path, associating those vehicles using a processor, generating a geo-fence comprising a virtual boundary of the caravan and providing location information on each vehicle in the caravan which determines whether each caravan vehicle is within the boundary of the geo-fence. This innovation also enables vehicles in a caravan to stay in communication to provide a simple platform for indicating that passengers in a certain vehicle wish to stop and eat, as well as tools for voting on where to stop when a stop is requested.
Patent Applications of Note: Electric Vehicles, Fuel Cell Systems and Clothing-Based Climate Control
Recent months have given us plenty of evidence of a growing strength in research and development over at General Motors. During August of last year, the company opened a fourth information technology innovation center at a 170,000 square foot facility in Chandler, AZ. In October, the company sponsored a GM Innovation Challenge at four American universities which focused on developing inventive manufacturing services in both 3D printing and augmented reality applications. The recent North American International Auto Show in January also featured an array of General Motors innovations in hybrid and electric vehicles.
With a lack of electric vehicle charging stations across the country, we were intrigued to see General Motors trying to increase it’s IP holdings in that sector through the filing of U.S. Patent Application No. 20140354229, filed under the title Electric Vehicle Charging Station. This patent application would protect a vehicle charging station with a track that extends across a plurality of vehicle parking spaces and a movable charging apparatus supported by the track that can move across the plurality of parking spaces. The movable charging apparatus includes a power delivery circuit that controllably provides an electric charge to an electric vehicle. This innovation station configuration could be enabled to provide fully automated charging techniques, preventing any shortcomings associated with the manual operation of the electric supply line by the vehicle operator.
Fuel cell technologies are also strong among the patent applications recently filed by GM with the USPTO. Protecting fuel cell operation from the fluctuations in thermal quality that can be caused by excessive waste heat removal from the cell is the focus of U.S. Patent Applications No. 20140363752, which is titled Systems and Methods for Controlling Cabin Heating in Fuel Cell Vehicles. This patent application claims a method for managing a temperature in a vehicle cabin while reducing impacts on fuel cell system durability and efficiency. The method includes the steps of receiving an indication relating to a desired vehicle cabin temperature, receiving a plurality of measured operating parameters, estimating a projected output temperature of a cabin heat exchanger and adjusting a fuel cell coolant parameter based on a determination that a projected output temperature is less than the desired cabin temperature indication. A newly configured fuel cell storage system that maximizes the storage capacity of a fuel tank is described within U.S. Patent Application No. 20150001839, which is titled Rear Integration of a Suspension System and Fuel Tanks in Fuel Cell Vehicles. The fuel cell storage system claimed here includes a support system coupled to the vehicle which includes a subframe and a plurality of rails, a first fuel tank coupled to the support system and a suspension system coupled to the first fuel tank which is configured to minimize movement of the vehicle. The suspension system, support system and fuel tank cooperate to carry both vehicle structural loads and reaction loads.
We explored a couple of patent applications that feature some intriguing software systems for automating certain functions of a vehicle. Improvements to automatic climate control systems that can analyze the clothing worn by vehicle occupants to determine an appropriate thermal comfort level are the focus of U.S. Patent Application No. 20150025738, entitled Methods and Apparatus for Automatic Climate Control in a Vehicle Based on Clothing Insulative Factor. The patent application would protect a method of operating an automatic climate control system of a motor vehicle that involves determining a clothing insulative factor for a motor vehicle occupant, calculating a model temperature condition based on a temperature set-point and the clothing insulative factor, obtaining a current existing temperature condition, calculating a difference between the model temperature and the current existing temperature conditions and changing at least one parameter for adjusting the current existing temperature based on the calculated difference. This system involves the use of infrared temperature readings of motor vehicle occupants to determine clothing insulative factors. Automated methods for applying a parking brake to prevent a vehicle from rolling away while parked on an incline are outlined by U.S. Patent Application No. 20150014082, titled System for Detecting When a Vehicle Occupant Exits the Vehicle, System for Activating or Deactivating a Function in a Vehicle and Corresponding Vehicle. The system for detecting an exiting vehicle occupant claimed here includes a sensor device that measures the acceleration of a vehicle along a direction of the vehicle and an evaluation device that evaluates a time-dependent signal of the acceleration data to determine if the signal contains a sequence of acceleration values that is characteristic of an occupant leaving a vehicle. This innovation is intended to improve the reliability that a vehicle will not roll away by automating the application of the parking brake responsive to an occupant leaving the vehicle.
There were even more telematics innovations that we found in the patent applications filed by General Motors and one of the more interesting ones that we explored would be protected by U.S. Patent Application No. 20140324248, filed under the title Telematics for a Towed Vehicle. The telematics system for a vehicle to be towed that is claimed here involves a vehicle communication network that receives vehicle data from at least one vehicle system and a telematics module which determines the towing status of a vehicle, generates telematics data based upon vehicle data and transmits telematics data to a remote access system when the towing mode status indicates that a vehicle is configured to be towed. This system is intended to determine the additional vehicle mileage incurred by towing, which can cause wear to certain components, while also enabling methods of monitoring the status of vehicle systems in a vehicle being towed.
Finally, we were piqued by a General Motors innovation designed to support the use of voice commands issued by vehicle occupants. U.S. Patent Application No. 20140337029, which is titled Speech Recognition With a Plurality of Microphones, claims a speech recognition system that utilizes multiple microphones having different frequency responses which are also capable of converting acoustic energy into electrical signals and a processor coupled to the microphones that recognizes a spoken word based on the microphone signals, determines a classification of the spoken word and weighs microphone signals based upon the spoken word classification. This invention provides a speech recognition system with enhanced accuracy in determining commands from voice inputs through the use of microphones which can process a wider range of frequencies that exist in human speech.