Auto industry focused on alternative power

Auto industry focused on alternative power

Patent data shows a 182% increase in alternative power R&D in the last five years. Bob Stembridge delves into wider patenting trends in the industry.

Quick, what’s the best-selling automobile in car-crazy California? The retro hot rod Dodge Challenger? The sleek new Audi A4? The bling-laden Cadillac Escalade?

Not even close. For the first nine months of 2012, the best-selling car in California has been the hybrid Toyota Prius.

Catapulting from alternative novelty to fully-fledged best-seller in just 12 years, the Prius has become the car king of the land that made the “Little GTO” and a plutonium-powered DeLorean famous. Through September of 2012, Toyota has sold 46,380 of the hybrids in California, according to AutoCount, the car data division of Experian and the California New Car Dealers Association.

The trend has gone far beyond an eco-conscious fad. Driven by a combination of consumer demand and stringent new fuel economy standards introduced this past August, virtually every large auto manufacturer has put considerable R&D resources into finding alternatives to the standard internal combustion engine. The new government fuel economy standards will nearly double the average mileage requirements for cars and light trucks sold in the US to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. This compares with an average fuel economy rating of vehicles in the 2011 model year of 28.6 miles per gallon, according to the Environmental Protection Agency[i].

So, is alternative power just a new marketing angle for car companies, or are they really gearing up to double their fleets’ mileage over the next decade and a half? To find out, the IP and Science business of Thomson Reuters tracked hot spots of auto industry innovation through 2011, analyzing global innovation in technology that have shown the sharpest growth over the past five years. By tracking the total numbers of unique inventions in published patent applications and granted patents between 2006 and 2011, we were able to identify segments of the R&D landscape that are receiving growing attention from auto industry innovators, even in the midst of a worldwide recession. The result: alternative power is the fastest growing segment of auto industry R&D, with a 182% increase in patenting activity between 2006 and 2011.

Top auto technologies

The fastest growth area in automotive technology patenting has been alternative power, a category that covers everything from hybrids to hydrogen-powered vehicles. Alternative power patent activity increased 182% from 2006 to 2011, followed by vehicle security systems (54%) and transmission systems (48%).

Table 1 depicts the top patent areas in 2006 and in 2011, both in terms of total patent activity and category growth:

Table 1: Top Automotive-Related Technology Areas (2011 vs 2006) Published Patent Applications and Granted Patents

Source: Thomson Reuters Derwent World Patents Index

Alternative powered vehicles

With its recent hybrid-powered success, the Prius, Toyota has become synonymous with alternative powered autos. Not surprisingly, the company continues to exploit its early mover advantage by reinvesting heavily in alternative power R&D.

Between 2006 and 2011, patent activity in the alternative power space grew by 182%: more than any other technology area in the automotive industry, with a total of 14,977 unique inventions for 2011. Of those, 1,901 were from Toyota. The next highest innovator in this space is rival Honda, which posted 587 unique inventions, followed by Denso, the Japanese auto components manufacturer, General Motors and Panasonic, the manufacturer of the batteries that help power Toyota’s Prius.

Table 2 depicts growth in patenting activity by company in the alternative power space, for 2011 and 2006:

Table 2: Top Alternative Powered Vehicle Patentees (2011 vs 2006) Published Patent Applications and Granted Patents

Source: Thomson Reuters Derwent World Patents Index

Geographically, the automakers doing the most alternative power innovation are dispersed across Japan (35%), China (28%), the US (10%), South Korea (9%) and Germany (8%).

Table 3 breaks down all alternative power innovation by priority country for the calendar year 2011. Each patent cites a priority country, in other words the country where the invention was first filed. This is normally the home country of the inventor and is different than the country of origin shown above, which is where the company is headquartered.

Table 3: Alternative Power Vehicle Innovation by Country 2011 Published Patent Applications and Granted Patents

Source: Thomson Reuters Derwent World Patents Index

Vehicle security systems

Three trends have conspired to drive a steadily growing interest in the vehicle security systems category: cars are expensive, they get stolen and insurance gets more expensive every day…. click here to subscribe and read the whole article