Patent Trends Study Part Five: Automotive Industry

“Peak internal combustion engine (ICE) innovation happened in 2014, with electric motors seeing steady upward trends.”

This is the fifth in a 13-part series of articles authored by Kilpatrick Townsend that IPWatchdog will be publishing over the coming weeks. The series will examine industry-specific patent trends across 12 key patent-intensive industries.

Yesterday, we discussed patenting trends in Computational Biology and Bioinformatics. Today, we turn to the automotive industry, which is a large part of the U.S. domestic economy.

To quickly summarize this series:

  • The goal of the research was to characterize recent patenting trends and statistics for each of twelve industries (and technology clusters within those industries) to inform applicants’ filing decisions of tomorrow.
  • The study was conducted at an industry level (not at an art-unit or class level). This was achieved by designing and implementing various queries and iteratively manually reviewing a large number of search results to refine the queries.
  • The study is further unique in that we used proprietary data from recent years and data-science techniques to estimate statistics for recent time periods (which would otherwise have poor data as a result of the non-publication time window).

It has been a wild decade for the automotive industry, with U.S. auto brands almost dying in the Great Recession. Federal government intervention rescued brands and attempted to turn them toward efficiency instead of profitable large SUVs. Although there has been a steep increase in patent filings in the automotive space, U.S. companies have a smaller proportion of them, indicating global forces are a major threat. This is especially acute in the area of electric propulsion, where our early patent lead has plateaued. Many of the car brands and battery innovators have been sold to Chinese interests who are moving quickly with government support to dominate the car industry, at least for electric vehicles (EVs).

Our study not only identified a set of applications that pertained to this industry, but also—for each application in this set—we determined whether the application pertained to one or more of the categories shown in the topology below. If so, the application was appropriately tagged, such that it could be included in one or more category-specific data subsets for subsequent analysis.

Automotive patent filings for the industry overall have steadily increased after a brief inflection in 2009 corresponding to the Great Recession, as shown in Figure 1. This is a common trend in most of the areas we studied. As availability of capital evaporated, the overhead associated with a patent program was an easy victim. The hiatus was temporary, with a doubling of filings since.

Figure 1

Despite the general upward trend in filings, different clusters experienced trends, as broken out in Figure 2A. The most growth was seen by Vehicle Controlling Systems, Ancillary Vehicle Systems, AI-Integrated Vehicles, and Vehicle Navigation Systems. Propulsion Battery had strong growth before actually decreasing in 2014 in a trend that continues today—perhaps corresponding to the movement of battery manufacture overseas. Several areas found early growth and then plateaued around 2014, such as EVs, Vehicle Propulsion Systems, and Vehicle Safety Systems, just as gas prices fell off.

Figure 2A

In Figure 2B, we charted internal combustion engine (ICE) against electric motors common in EVs and hybrids. Electric motor innovation has a steady upward trend, while ICE peaked in 2014 and is falling away even with decreasing fuel prices.

Figure 2B

Globalization is pushing down the contribution to patent filings for U.S. companies. Automotive was the sector that saw the lowest domestic contribution to U.S. patent filings. We see the proportion of U.S. filing going down since 2014, with Japan and China filling in that gap in Figure 3. With far more electric pure-play brands in China producing cars in volume than the lone brand we have domestically, the shift to China for EV innovation is expected to continue.

Figure 3

Automotive patent filings in the United States show a healthy upward trend. With the transition to technology-heavy autos, those segments are driving the increases. The innovation age of ICE propulsion may finally be ending after over a century of improvements that produced extremely complex and reliable offerings. Electric propulsion seems here to stay after a century of ICE dominance. Cars are becoming more like our cell phones, with constant technology upgrades and software improvements that may end the need for human drivers altogether. We hope that the automobile sector can get ahead of these trends to increase their domestic dominance with more aggressive innovation and patenting strategies.

A copy of the full published study is available with additional detail here.

The Author

Thomas Franklin

Thomas Franklin is a partner in the Denver and San Diego offices of Kilpatrick Townsend. He focuses his practice on patent prosecution, licensing and intellectual capital management with more than fifteen years of experience with intellectual property. He is experienced in intellectual property audits, due diligence and strategic planning processes. Through an IP Asset Management plan, he tailors strategy to business goals, competitive pressures and funding constraints to leverage intangible assets with intellectual property. He uses IP protection to maintain the dominance of large companies or assist smaller enterprises who are vying to dominate.

Thomas Franklin

Kate Gaudry Kate Gaudry, Ph.D., is a partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP. She focuses her practice on patent prosecution, with an emphasis on software, computer systems, and quantitative biology technologies. Dr. Gaudry also routinely performs statistical analysis of clients’ patent portfolios to identify effective prosecution strategies. Dr. Gaudry also regularly empirically evaluates programs and performance of the United States Patent and Trademark Office so as to provide her clients with prosecution recommendations and to advocate for compact and fair examination. For more information, or to contact Dr. Gaudry, please visit her firm profile page.

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  1. Anon May 7, 2019 2:05 pm

    There are two surprising things here:
    – batteries down
    – AI integrated vehicles up

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