In the automotive industry, it seems as though companies cannot give their patents away fast enough. The firesale began in earnest last June when Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk announced to the world that neither he nor his company would enforce their patent rights on innovations made using their lithium-ion battery technologies. This decision to open source about 200 U.S. patents was bested in January of this year when Japanese auto manufacturer Toyota (NYSE:TM) released a portfolio of more than 5,500 patents in the area of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles through a cost-free licensing program.
Most recently, Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) has joined this collaborative jamboree, announcing that it would facilitate licensing of more than 650 patents and about 1,000 patent applications in the field of electric vehicles (EVs). The company’s press announcement pointed out how it has recently been vamping up research and development in that sector, filing 400 patent applications in 2014 alone. Ford is also interested in hiring an additional 200 electric vehicle engineers this year for its laboratory facilities in Dearborn, MI.
It bears pointing out that nothing terribly novel is happening here in terms of tech licensing. Any company that owns intellectual property is free to enter into negotiations with a manufacturer to sell certain rights to those technologies. Ford is not giving these patents away for free but listing them on the online IP marketplace maintained by the AutoHarvest Foundation, a non-profit organization building a web-based platform for licensing patents in the automotive and manufacturing sectors. As this article published by JDSupra reports, Ford hasn’t given up any information on its patent holdings which aren’t easily available through a bevy of online databases, as any reader of our Companies We Follow series would know.
However, the announcement is somewhat significant in an industry where many corporations have employed a “not invented here” (NIH) mentality when assessing IP licensing opportunities. Unlike in the smartphone or semiconductor industries, where it’s no surprise to see Microsoft leveraging its tech with a contract manufacturer like Foxconn or Qualcomm soliciting for licensees directly on its website, cross-licensing in the auto industry is much more rare. It may be one reason why Elon Musk found himself so surprised by the unwillingness of major auto manufacturers to “copy [Tesla’s] technology and then use their massive manufacturing, sales and marketing power to overwhelm Tesla.”
It’s interesting to see so many patent open sourcing and licensing activities in a year during which we’ve been profiling a series of ground-breaking advances in automotive technologies. Autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles were a major feature at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, which was attended by automakers like Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen. A Thomson Reuters study published earlier this year reported a dramatic increase in patenting activities among vehicle manufacturers, particularly in areas like autonomous driving or propulsion system tech.
There are those who have tried to apply economic theories to the recent announcements by Ford, Toyota and Tesla and have come up with the notion that electric vehicle patents have been devalued. There is a truth to this statement; the no-cost use of a technology will always be cheaper than any licensing fee. Ford’s decision to add so many engineering jobs, however, indicates that the company sees real long-term value in developing EV technology.
Another interesting critique of Ford’s patent announcement tries to draw a parallel between its new stance on patents and its increased engagement with a number of car sharing ventures located around the world. To them, these decisions indicate the development of a new sharing economy in the automotive sector. Of course, Ford isn’t sharing anything here without earning some form of revenue and the company’s own fact sheet on its car sharing pursuits discusses the addition of new customers and new revenue streams as its goals, along with sustainability.
This isn’t the first time that Ford has partnered with the AutoHarvest Foundation to encourage innovation from outside of the company’s walls. In May 2012 the automaker announced an agreement with AutoHarvest and do-it-yourself fabrication shop TechShop to encourage crowdsourced automotive innovations by enabling Ford engineers to work in TechShop facilities and engage with those from outside the company.
From Reduced CO2 Emissions to Driver Feedback Interfaces
We were actually able to obtain a 32-page listing from AutoHarvest of all of the electric vehicle patents which the company is interested in licensing. As the listing notes, these 650 U.S. patents have a large number of corresponding worldwide issued patents which Ford will license to foreign parties if they choose to negotiate. Another note indicates that the list will be updated “as additional patents are made available,” so readers should expect to hear more about Ford licensing its patented technology in the near future.
The earliest of Ford’s EV patents which is available for licensing is U.S. Patent No. 5713425, entitled Parallel Hybrid Powertrain for an Automotive Vehicle. Issued in February 1998, this patent claims a hybrid vehicle powertrain having a transmission assembly, an internal combustion engine and an electric motor-generator unit which can supply torque to the traction wheels when the first torque path provided by the transmission assembly is interrupted. The electric motor-generator unit enables the hybrid vehicle to be launched without consuming fuel, reducing undesirable exhaust emissions output by the engine. A similar type of launch control technology is protected by Ford through the March 2010 issue of U.S. Patent No. 7678013, titled Launch Control of a Hybrid Electric Vehicle. The method for controlling the launch of a vehicle having multiple power paths which is claimed here determines the desired magnitude of wheel torque and crankshaft torque to be produced at a first wheel set and then operating both the input clutch and the engine to produce a desired amount of torque. This technology is capable of accelerating a hybrid electric vehicle from a stopped or nearly stopped position without causing excessive clutch slip, a stalled engine or reduced clutch durability, which had resulted from conventional hybrid vehicles utilizing a powershift transmission.
The reduction of carbon-based emissions is a major reason why auto manufacturers are pursuing EV development and that’s reflected by a lot of Ford’s licensable patents that we took note of today. In July 2004, Ford was issued U.S. Patent No. 6763298, entitled Controlled Engine Shutdown for a Hybrid Electric Vehicle. This patent discloses a method to control an engine shutdown for a hybrid electric vehicle by controlling engine torque and speed, stopping purge flow from a vapor management valve, stopping exhaust gas recirculation flow, ramping off fuel injectors, flushing an engine intake manifold of residual fuel and disabling an ignition system. By removing residual fuel from the engine, the delivery of the proper amount of fuel through injectors during the next drive cycle is improved and fuel waste is prevented. Reduced CO2 emissions are at the center of the technology protected through U.S. Patent No. 8855895, titled System and Method for Reducing Vehicle Generated Carbon Dioxide Emissions. The method protected by this patent involves transporting a secondary vehicle through the use of a primary vehicle which produces a greater amount of carbon dioxide emissions, operating the primary vehicle while the secondary vehicle is nested and immobilizing the primary vehicle when the secondary vehicle is removed. This innovation related to composite vehicles, such as an automobile that contains a nested bicycle for zero-carbon emission travel, is designed to encourage more intelligent vehicle usage and reduce traffic congestion on city streets.
Regenerative braking systems which convert kinetic energy collected during braking operations into storable energy useful for vehicle propulsion are the focus of U.S. Patent No. 8924120, entitled Regenerative Brake Control System and Method and issued last December. The regenerative braking system disclosed here includes a vehicle controller that engages a driveline torque distribution device and the electric machine which interfaces with that device to apply regenerative brake torque to a plurality of wheels and at least one axle. This regenerative braking system is designed to balance brake torque between the front and rear wheels in proportion to the traction available at each wheel, improving vehicle stability during braking. Finally, we were intrigued by a November 2014 patent issued to Ford for a technology that provides recommended changes to driving behavior. U.S. Patent No. 8880290, titled Driving Behavior Feedback Interface, claims a system that includes a controller that receives input indicative of vehicle acceleration and powertrain output power, calculates an instantaneous acceleration score and outputs a long-term acceleration score based on a previous long-term acceleration score and a forgetting factor weighting the instantaneous and long-term deceleration scores. This information is then outputted through an interface so that a driver is provided with real-time feedback on fuel economy and vehicle range as he or she is driving.