Green cars are sprouting up everywhere. It’s no wonder since policy implementers including the Obama administration and the Australian Government are taking “green cars” seriously. The IEEE put out this short movie about hybrid and electric vehicles. It explains that pollution, energy security, and climate change are all important factors driving policy.
Electric and hybrid vehicles, and associated cleantech Research and Development, is accelerating particularly rapidly. Toyota announced a new Camry concept hybrid car with a decent power output of 143kW, and Honda is releasing a new version of their cheaper Insight hybrid car.
Better Placeis installing, in various cities around the world (including Melbourne), a network of stations that can replace drained batteries with fresh ones – just like filling a vehicle with a new tank of gas. Chinese auto maker BYD Build Your Dreams, believes that the future has electric cars filling the roads, with quick-charge stations being as readily available as petrol stations today. BYD has unveiled a series of slick electric and plug-in hybrids as it prepares to enter the US and European markets in 2011.
IBM and a Danish company have joined together to develop smart technology that controls the charging rates of electric vehicles, depending on the availability of renewable energy at any instant.
So how much patent activity is there in this area? Lynne Teo, a professional patent searcher at Griffith Hack, searched for patents applications worldwide related to electric or hybrid vehicles. Lynne found 37,907 patent applications between 1970 and 2007. Wow – that is a lot of patents. Innovators are continuing to cement their significant commercial advantage through patenting, with around 2,500 applications in 2007 alone, slightly down from the peak of over 3,000 in 2006. The number of patent applications filed each year is graphed below. It turns out that the US had an electric and hybrid vehicle program during the first oil crisis (around 1976), which is represented as a small hump between 1976-1985 in the graph below. It is also interesting to compare the patenting data to the historical oil price which appear to be somewhat correlated. But electric and cars have been in development for quite some time. The first US patent was published100 years ago this year.
The patent landscape is becoming highly populated. Players in hybrid and electric vehicles and their supporting infrastructure need to know what patents are out there. Searching for relevant prior art before patenting helps considerably in determining if an idea is patentable or not. A patent can only be granted if the idea the patent seeks to protect is new. These published patents are easily found by a searcher – and also a patent examiner who may want to reject your application!
A lot of relevant – perhaps seminal – prior art will have been generated by the US electric and hybrid vehicle program of the 1970’s. They present a rich source of prior art that patent examiners will draw upon. Fortunately, these patents have expired and so the technology disclosed in them can be used freely without risk of infringement. But the mountain of patent applications, starting around 1989 presents a real infringement risk because some of these patents will now be granted and alive. Knowing the risks of infringing the patents of others is, in many cases, imperative before an investment is made. A patent search to find what patents are out there is a first step in identifying the risks and neutralising them.
Searching can also inform you as to what technological areas are currently poorly covered by patents. Patenting over these areas can result in significant strategic advantage, or help to identify a business opportunity.
[Source of patent data: Delphion National Collections including patent records from the US, Europe, WIPO PCT, Japan, Germany and INPADOC]