• Corinne E. Atton

Patent Insights: Electric Vehicles

Say Goodbye to the Gasoline(Petrol)-Powered Car

There have been big announcements in the car industry in recent weeks. General Motors (GM) has committed to an all-electric future, pledging to make 30 new global electric vehicles available by 2025. GM also plans to be carbon neutral by 2024 in its global products and operations, and to eliminate tailpipe emissions from new light-duty vehicles by 2035. Meanwhile, Nissan has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality across its operations and the life cycle of its products by 2050, and has committed to all-new Nissan vehicles being electric by the early 2030s.

GM and Nissan are joined by Toyota, Honda, Audi, Volvo, Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler, and others, who have all committed, at a minimum, to the significant production of electric vehicles by 2025.

Given these commitments, it is no surprise that these entities are investing in innovation. Each of Ford, Hyundai/Kai, Toyota, Honda, General Motors, Volkswagen/Audi/Porsche, and Nissan were granted multiple U.S. patents relating to electric vehicle technology in 2020:

It takes approximately 25 months to obtain a U.S. patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), so the innovation and discoveries that are described in these patents occurred years earlier.

Looking back at electric vehicle technology patents issued by the USPTO over the last five years—again, reflecting innovation and discoveries occurring some years earlier—gives an insight into the lifecycle of investment and innovation in this industry. The number of patents issued has tailed off significantly, indicating a mature market, as we look set to see the launch of fleets of vehicles that will revolutionize transportation:

Electric transportation has a fascinating history. The first electric vehicles were invented more than 150 years ago. Since then, the industry has faced a number of ups and downs, with long-term uptake historically hindered, among other things, by the lack of recharging infrastructure, limitations of storage batteries, and an inability to drive longer distances, at the speeds associated with modern life.

Tesla, founded in the early 2000s, broke the mold. Now, a mass transition from gasoline (petrol) to electric powered vehicles looks set to be a reality. The transportation sector alone accounts for 31% of net U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), so electrification has the potential to make a significant impact not only on U.S., but also on global emissions. But we must learn lessons from the past—enormous investment is needed to support and integrate this new generation of electric vehicles into wider infrastructure. Not least, the power grid needs to be updated and transitioned to handle a significant increase in electric vehicles—and widespread adoption requires easily accessible, convenient, charging stations.

The Biden-Harris Administration has voiced its support for the growth of electric transportation—committing to “installing 500,000 new electric vehicle charging stations across the country,” and incentivizing the switch to electric vehicles through rebates. The Administration has also committed to replacing the U.S. government's “enormous fleet of vehicles … with clean, electric vehicles.”

The development and expansion of the electric vehicle market will prompt a number of intellectual property (IP) issues, including patent, trade secrets and confidentiality, copyright, and data protection issues. As to patents, there will be a wide gambit of challenges (patentability, novelty, obviousness, sufficient disclosure and enablement) with, and without, infringement challenges. The technology involved will be diverse—from vehicles and their components, to telecommunication technologies and artificial intelligence, to connected infrastructure such has charging stations. With this comes a necessity for ‘connectedness’ and connectivity, reminiscent of what we have seen in the smartphone sector, together with the identification and designation of Standard Essential Patents (SEPs) and FRAND (Fair, Reasonable, And Non-Discriminatory terms) licensing. There is also, potentially, an increased role for patent pools, even patent pledges.

This transition also prompts increased opportunities for joint ventures and collaborations both within, and cross-sectors. Recent examples include Daimler and Geely (Volvo) who have established a joint venture relating to the development, manufacture and distribution of automotive products; Amazon has provided significant funding for Rivian, and Rivian has formed a strategic partnership with Ford to produce Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs); Microsoft has announced a patent licensing agreement with Toyota related to connected car technologies; and in Europe, BMW, Ford, Hyundai, Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen/Audi/Porsche have created the joint venture IONITY, to build a charging network for electric vehicles.

It is a new era in the automotive industry—one with the potential to have a significant impact on GHG emissions, and one that will present a new playbook of legal challenges.

(Data Source: Espacenet)

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