Automotive Technology - A New Battleground For Patent Wars?

Perhaps appropriately, the car industry stands at a crossroads. Some fifteen years after the Toyota Prius showed that mass market hybrids were feasible, and five years after Tesla's all-electric Roadster managed 0 to 60 in under four seconds and made the vice-chairman of General Motors say "How come some tiny little California start-up, run by guys who know nothing about the car business, can do this, and we can't?", the internal combustion engine, and the car industry in general, is starting to show its considerable age.

Niche carmakers come and go, but once a firm becomes a volume carmaker, it will normally stay as one; Ford, General Motors, Mercedes, Peugeot and Renault have all been around for over a hundred years in one form or another. However, size can bring inertia, and companies who have already invested huge sums in factories producing conventional engines and powertrains are unlikely to be willing to invest in research that could render such conventional designs obsolete (or at least unfashionable). Newer kids on the engine block, with no such millstones around their necks, are free to be pioneers, and major electrical and electronic companies, with little or no previous experience in the automotive field but plenty of knowledge of electric motors and batteries, are already carrying out their own research.

It is not only the mechanics of the car which is feeling the change. As the self-driving car edges ever closer to reality, a plethora of electronic driver aids and safety features, such as autonomous brakes, lane support systems, and blind spot monitoring are being created and refined. Further, with the increasing use of electronics in engine management systems and the like, all that is now required to increase performance or reduce emissions is a software update.

Any improvement which is more reliant on software than hard engineering lends itself to development by newcomers to the field; rather than needing the attentions of a major manufacturer, advances can be made by a start-up with a laptop. Several commentators have suggested that these new entrants to the field, smaller, more agile, and perhaps more IP-savvy, could cause problems for the big manufacturers, who may be reduced to simply assembling bought-in components. In some ways, this may not be much of a change, as some automotive component suppliers have also been around for over a hundred years; however, when technology advances quickly, a controlling patent can be...

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