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Toyota Builds a Patent Thicket For Hybrid Cars 307

Posted by kdawson
from the stop-pay-toll dept.
Lorien_the_first_one sends along a WSJ piece reporting on how Toyota is hoping to benefit from new Obama Administration regulations for automobiles here in the US. "Since it started developing the gas-electric Prius more than a decade ago, Toyota has kept its attorneys just as busy as its engineers, meticulously filing for patents on more than 2,000 systems and components for its best-selling hybrid. Its third-generation Prius, which hit showrooms in May, accounts for about half of those patents alone. Toyota's goal: to make it difficult for other auto makers to develop their own hybrids without seeking licensing from Toyota, as Ford Motor Co. already did to make its Escape hybrid and Nissan Motor Co. has for its Altima hybrid."
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Toyota Builds a Patent Thicket For Hybrid Cars

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  • Kudos to them (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Cowdog (154277) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @09:46PM (#28616777) Journal

    This is exactly what patents *should* be used for: secure rewards for innovators who take the risk of bringing out a future-leading product.

    The US auto companies who had a product vision apparently inspired by Country & Western music unfortunately passed on the opportunity, and now they'll have to pay.

    • Re:Kudos to them (Score:5, Insightful)

      by beckett (27524) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @09:53PM (#28616829) Homepage Journal

      i agree that American Auto should suck it. The timing around the toyota patents sucks though.

      Feet dragging patents may be great for the bottom line and act as some sort of poetic justice, but the patents retard widespread deployment of hybrid vehicles and chokes further development of the technology. by the time some patents would expire (e.g. 20 years), our window to affect climate change may have past.

      at least Toyota banks mad cash on their prius in the mean time.

      • by MightyYar (622222)

        at least Toyota banks mad cash on their prius in the mean time.

        I doubt they make much money off of that thing. They probably make about as much as they do from a Corolla, despite it costing significantly more than a Corolla.

        • Re:Kudos to them (Score:4, Interesting)

          by beckett (27524) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:50PM (#28617141) Homepage Journal

          Toyota makes more money off the Greenwashing effect of selling the Prius with the Hybrid Synergy Drivetrain. the brand is so friendly now when you see a Toyota Kluger/Highlander fill up its 72L gas tank, it's perceived as a hipper choice than buying a Trailblazer or Land Rover.

          • by jo_ham (604554)

            Is a 72 litre gas tank in an SUV not quite small? My 1996 Peugeot 306 XN has a 50-55 litre tank (although the meter suggests 60L, I have never filled it up that much - I am assuming that includes the reserve) and its a medium sized hatchback.

            I would wager that the Tailblazer and the Landy have much more thirsty tanks than the hybrid machine.

            • by beckett (27524)

              The Blazer and the Disco have no hybrid equivalents. Look at the illusion created by Toyota: the hybrid Highlander looks almost the same as the gas-only Highlander. both benefit from the greenwash even though only one of them is "green". Basically everybody that drives a Toyota benefits from the goodwill achieved with Toyota having a Prius in their lineup.

              Through slight of marketing, toyota has turned an untenable product (leviathan class SUV) into something green.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          at least Toyota banks mad cash on their prius in the mean time.

          I doubt they make much money off of that thing. They probably make about as much as they do from a Corolla, despite it costing significantly more than a Corolla.

          Yes, they probably do: it's a corporate strategy to have approximately flat margins across their model line so that they don't care which toyota you buy, so long as it's a toyota.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Feet dragging patents

        There's no other kind. It takes years and years to revise a patent to the point where the USPTO will accept it. I worked at a (software) company that wrote and initially filed a patent in 2000, and it was still not through the process by 2008. Contrary to what many people around here may think, the USPTO does do a fair bit of work to try and make sure that patents are fair, so the process does take time.

      • Re:Kudos to them (Score:5, Insightful)

        by clarkkent09 (1104833) * on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:48PM (#28617129)
        the patents retard widespread deployment of hybrid vehicles and chokes further development of the technology

        That's debatable. Would Toyota have risked millions (billions?) on developing the technology in the first place if they weren't expecting a big reward if they succeeded. Without patents they would be the big losers now and those who dragged their feet and played it "safe" would be the big winners as they would copy the successful technology without having to risk a dime on developing it. I'm not saying that the current situation is ideal but when criticizing the patents, it's worth remembering the pros as well as the cons.
      • Re:Kudos to them (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Arguendo (931986) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:49PM (#28617133)

        at least Toyota banks mad cash on their prius in the mean time.

        Actually, that's sort of the problem for Toyota. They got hit with a patent judgment [bloomberg.com] over their hybrid vehicles in eastern Texas a couple of years ago. The plaintiff was awarded nearly $100 a vehicle [scribd.com] as an on-going royalty (which is about 17% of Toyota's relatively slim profit margin).

        So I agree. Kudos to Toyota for playing the game like it should be played. They got hit pretty hard and they needed to fight fire with fire. Good for them.

      • Re:Kudos to them (Score:4, Insightful)

        by samkass (174571) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @11:35PM (#28617413) Homepage Journal

        by the time some patents would expire (e.g. 20 years), our window to affect climate change may have past.

        Presumably Toyota could license the patents to recoup investment costs and make a profit long before they expire. THAT's the way the patent game is supposed to be played. It lowers the barrier to entry for everyone and allows the innovator to profit.

        • by sumdumass (711423)

          Well, the government passing tax and trade caps and artificially driving up energy costs will just make Toyota's patents assets that much more valuable. They will be able to recoup their costs and then some several times over in the next 20 years.

      • by sumdumass (711423)

        Your not going to effect climate change within the next 20 years. I'm not trolling or anything but the reality is that every small or third world country that is going to benefit from the tax and trade the US is getting will be adding roughly 8-9 times the amount of carbon we can offset by their increased standards of living. Further more, no one is addressing China which is out polluting the US or India which is growing to be right up there.

        Nothing the US or Europe does will cancel out this effect (in the

        • Nothing the US or Europe does will cancel out this effect (in the next 20-50 years) unless they cause a massive starvation or die off of their populations.

          US & Europe to China: "Get at least as clean as us or we stop trading with you."

          • by sumdumass (711423)

            That will not happen. Europe is meeting a lot of their Kyoto compliance through offshoring to china and India. The US has regulated most of it's manufacturing offshore too.

            Any efforts to stop trading with China or India or any other country developing will either result in the same pollution going elsewhere or seriously hurt the US and EU hard. And the ability to change that will not be met in 20 years nor will the ability to go green happen at the same time.

      • but the patents retard widespread deployment of hybrid vehicles and chokes further development of the technology. by the time some patents would expire (e.g. 20 years), our window to affect climate change may have past.

        Oh sure, whine about big bad toyota protecting their research, acting as though they'd still behave similarly without patents. Meanwhile, advocate stripping them of their possessions because of the issue of the day - it's too important to make money on!

        If we do this to them, we can do it to you down the road. It's not like toyota is just sitting on their laurels here.

    • Re:Kudos to them (Score:5, Insightful)

      by fishbowl (7759) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:13PM (#28616929)

      "This is exactly what patents *should* be used for: secure rewards for innovators who take the risk of bringing out a future-leading product."

      Using them as a weapon against your competition who *laughed at you* all the way into *bankruptcy* is just a bonus, a coup de grace.

    • by dbIII (701233)
      Innovators? I first saw a working hybrid car in 1987. It was already being used daily at a mine site so there would have been a few prototypes prior to that.
    • by thule (9041) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:30PM (#28617021) Homepage

      If you think Japanese companies were the only ones working on hybrids, take a look at this article from June 1994:

      Formula Hybrid at Le Mans [google.com]

      The neat idea behind Chrysler's design is that the turbine must be de-coupled from the drive train. The electric engine is the thing that is moving the car. This way the turbine can run at the most efficient RPM.

      The fact is that American car companies built cars that could actually make a profit on. Those vehicles were SUV's.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by DerekLyons (302214)

        The neat idea behind Chrysler's design is that the turbine must be de-coupled from the drive train. The electric engine is the thing that is moving the car. This way the turbine can run at the most efficient RPM.

        That's not a particularly new idea... Diesel-electric submarines were built this way back in the 1930's.

    • This is exactly what patents *should* be used for: secure rewards for innovators who take the risk of bringing out a future-leading product.

      Yeah, but all too often the /. hivemnind defines "innovator" strictly as "someone I [like|agree with}approve of|all of the above]".

  • Obvious... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Nogami_Saeko (466595) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @09:48PM (#28616785)

    I believe this has been their plan from day one. While the Prius and their other hybrids have been good for the company both in terms of corporate image and moving vehicles, patent licensing is where the money is.

    By cornering the market on hybrid system patents (many of which would also apply to hydrogen and other alternative-energy vehicles), they stand to make a lot more money than just selling their own cars. The Ford Escape hybrid is a perfect example, as Ford licensed Toyota's 1st generation hybrid drive system rather than developing their own (Toyota had already moved on to the newer hybrid system by that point in time).

    Disclaimer: I own a Prius

    • Re:Obvious... (Score:5, Informative)

      by Pyrion (525584) * on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:11PM (#28616921) Homepage

      Nope, they developed their own system, and found it to be functionally similar to Toyota's, so rather than embroil themselves in lawsuits with Toyota, they cross-licensed.

      Disclaimer: I own an Escape Hybrid.

    • Re:Obvious... (Score:5, Informative)

      by timeOday (582209) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:31PM (#28617025)
      I disagree, simply because Toyota is easily the #1 leader in hybrid auto sales, and is making lots of money from them all by itself. Here's a cite [newsweek.com] for those assertions and lots more about how the Japanese and Toyota in particular are about to reap a windfall for their forward thinking engineering. Choice quote:

      "Toyota has already reached the break-even point on sales of its hybrids; by contrast, its foreign competitors, like GM, still have years of bleeding red ink ahead of them. Toyota says the parts in its next line of hybrids, due for release next year, will cost about half the current bunch, allowing it to drop prices and raise profits. While the company is estimated to have lost about $10,000 on each car produced when the line was launched back in 1997, "the new Prius is going to be hugely profitable," says Nikko's Matsushima, bringing in thousands of dollars per car.

      Meanwhile, as of just six weeks ago, you have GM clinging to the old line [usatoday.com]: "as long as gas is cheap, Americans will want big, powerful vehicles. He compared [Obama's] policy to trying to fight obesity by having the government require that clothing only be made in small sizes." This after GM already went broke pursuing that strategy, while Toyota is poised to make a killing on their small fuel-efficient cars!

  • They SHOULD be making volt-style plugin series hybrids instead of Prius style parallel hybrids that have a direct connection between the gasoline engine and the wheels

    • by compro01 (777531)

      And series hybrids are better than parallel hybrids because...?

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Planesdragon (210349)

        And series hybrids are better than parallel hybrids because...?

        In random order:

        1: More efficient.
        2: Easier to swap out the fuel source (just bolt-in a new generator)
        3: You can run the darn things on pure-grid if your trips are short enough
        4: Less parts to break.

        A parallel hybrid is a full internal combustion-kinetic drivetrain, along with a full electric drivetrain. (Both share parts somewhere between reaction and asphalt.)

        A serial hybrid is an internal-combustion GENERATOR that runs a full electric drivetrain. This is how diesel locomotives work.

        Marketing speak of so

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Pyrion (525584) *

      Why? Don't you incur a net loss in efficiency by converting mechanical power to electrical and back to mechanical?

      • by compro01 (777531)

        I'm fairly sure the idea is to have the engine spin at the optimally efficient RPM and drive a generator designed to also provide maximum power at that RPM and that will be more efficient than running the engine at any of the range of RPMs required at various speeds.

        I don't buy it as :

        1. The HSD system already uses a CVT system that keeps the engine damn close to that optimal RPM across the speed range, so I don't see much possible gain there.

        2. The obvious conversion losses you mention.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @09:50PM (#28616807)

    If patents are supposedly to encourage new technological developments, without knowing the details, it sounds like this might actually be a responsible use. After all, it gives Toyota a financial incentive to come up with more efficient cars. And the competition is actually licensing it. Unlike in the farmaceutical industry, where companies patent publicly-funded findings from NIH research so that they can be the only ones profiting from it. Or software, where people patent stuff to be able to sue their competitors out of a product space.

  • by Maxwell (13985) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @09:55PM (#28616839) Homepage

    So it's a fact that Toyota's goal is to prevent any one else from making hybrids without licensing?

    Or maybe their goal is to protect their hard earned IP that they spent ten years working on while the rest of the world laughed at them?

    Good work , Toyota. you deserve those patents.

    • by fermion (181285) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:17PM (#28616947) Homepage Journal
      Exactly, those that have worked on alternatively powered cars have a portfolio that will allow them to produce such cars. Those who have not are going to be left behind. This is right and proper. The companies include GM and Chrysler. Though it was probably ok to bail out these companies to assist semi-skilled semi-educated employees who would have otherwise been left with little hope of gainful employment, we do have to admit that the technical and management expertise seems so antiquated that there seems little hope that they will be able to compete. And don't complain about the expensive pay to workers. That is why they existed, to allow the semi-skilled high school graduate to enter the middle class. It did not prevent them from better funding appropriate research [autobloggreen.com]. A year ago the volt would have been a lifesaver. Now, who is going to buy a car from a company that may not be able to back it up?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:34PM (#28617057)

      The Atkinson cycle engine technology in the Prius is based on the engine invented by Atkinson to avoid Otto's patents on the internal combustion engine. The idea of the patent is to protect the inventor. A side effect of that is to spur creativity in others to develop alternatives that don't violate the patents. That doesn't mean that no one else can make a hybrid without paying Toyota, it means that they can avoid Toyota's patents by inventing a different hybrid technology. I haven't heard of Honda paying Toyota for the hybrid tech they put in the Civic and other hybrid models.

      American researchers in universities did a lot of R&D on hybrids back in the '60s - it's time for the American auto companies to continue that.

      BTW - my understanding is that Ford didn't pay for Toyota's technology because it was easier than inventing their own. Rather, they invented their own hybrid tech but it was not sufficiently different from Toyota's in the end and they had to pay as a result.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by jo_ham (604554)

        They didn't "have to pay", they just decided to licence Toyota's system because it was very similar and was much, much better than Ford's. So they decided to carry on in the same vein, but skip the R&D and buy a much better performance system "off the shelf" rather than continue to refine their own version, which is a good use of the patent system - Toyota developed it after all, and put in a lot of time and money, so for Ford to benefit from that, they can licence it and get a ready researched system r

  • it's no secret.... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gandhi_2 (1108023) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @09:55PM (#28616841) Homepage
    the prius ad's gush about how the '09 model accounts for a thousand patents alone. my '06 prius said the same stuff. these patents are a source of pride for them.
    • by Renraku (518261)

      Because they want people to think they're on top. Unfortunately, the general population still believes that patents reward actual innovation and ingenuity, when actually they reward people that patent general ideas that can be used against the entire industry to kill innovation and make millions of dollars in royalties.

      tl;dr: Patents are to make money rather than to protect unique ideas.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:10PM (#28616911)

    This is a common misconception, but Ford does not license their hybrid technology from Toyota. Related post at Autoblog where they explain: http://www.autoblog.com/2009/07/05/editorial-attention-i-wall-street-journal-i-ford-does-b-n/

    • I just read about the cross licensing. I could have sworn that the first Ford Escapes had the same "Hybrid Synergy Drive" badge that Toyota also had.
  • by Locutus (9039) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:40PM (#28617083)

    They had been working half-assed on hybrids since 1993 and were more than happy to give all that up to take cash from the US government to show million dollar hydrogen prototype cars and trucks. Can you say dumb? Unfortunately, the US government is allowing them to continue operating and sticking US citizens with the bill. IMO, any of those three which couldn't continue operating should have been parted out and the remains crushed like GM did with the EV1. What a waste of money and it is their own fault Toyota is going to stomp on them with patent licensing costs as they should. After all, Toyota was the one who had to endure about 8 years of bashing by the US press and US auto makers for doing hybrid systems. They even had to endure a law suite by Mobile/Texaco when Toyota and Panasonic built prismatic NiMH batteries the oil company said were outside of the NiMH patent licenses which Mobile/Texaco purchased from GM. The large NiMH batteries used in the Rav4 EV had to be discontinued but at a cost of millions of dollars, they were allowed to continue making and using the prismatic design used in the Prius battery packs. Toyota deserves to be rewarded for what they've done with and for hybrid system designs.
     

    LoB
     

  • by Banzai042 (948220) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @11:05PM (#28617229)
    Given that Honda seems convinced that their tech doesn't conflict with any Toyota patents I'm curious as to how specific these patents are. If they're general enough for any automaker to run afoul of them just by making any sort of hybrid system then I'd imagine they could be invalidated through prior art. If they're much more specific to the Prius drivetrain then there are other questions, like how many patents deal directly with the drivetrain, vs control software, or other elements like battery tech? If it does get to that point then it can be debated if the public good of having more hybrids from different automakers outweighs the legitimate issue of rewarding Toyota for spending years and what was probably a fair sum of money in the development of their hybrid tech. I imagine that these patents cover a combination of the 2, and ford (and others) have decided that paying Toyota is cheaper than bringing a legitimate challange.
    I'd guess that at least a few of these patents deal with the weird new "cvt" that only uses planetary gears instead of belts or chains, which is a pretty significant and original idea for a car. A simulation of the gear system can be found here: http://homepage.mac.com/inachan/prius/planet_e.html [mac.com]
    • by Ogive17 (691899)
      Considering Honda put the first hybrid on the road (that anyone could own), I don't think they have anything to worry about. That and the systems are quite different.
  • by shadowblaster (1565487) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @11:16PM (#28617305)
    It is common for tecnology companies to file patents for defensive purposes. The purpose is not specifically to prevent others to compete but rather to prevent patent trolls to extort money from them in the future. Having as many things related to your product patented create a body of prior arts that can be used to fight suits by these trolls. What happens in an industry where there are a few major players (car, printers, etc) is that they end up cross licensing each others' patents anyway. This way the can focus on producing and selling their products without having to deal with lawsuits from patent trolls all the time.
    • The typical patent troll is a (usually small) company that does not produce the product itself, but only tries to cash in on the patent. So the patent troll does not violate the defensive patent, and suing them back becomes useless.

      Where it works is among companies that actually produce the product in question. Which often ends up in cross-licensing as you correctly observed, and in that context patents might as well not exist at all.

  • So Toyota is just supposed to let a decade of R&D go out the window? I hate software patents as much as the next person, but Toyota had to invent physical items from scratch in anticipation of high gas prices. They were way ahead of the curve and deserve to be compensated by having their inventions protected for a period of time so they can recoup their costs and make a profit. You want to have a state-of-the-art hybrid? Buy a prius.

  • As the summary claimed:

    Toyota's goal: to make it difficult for other auto makers to develop their own hybrids without seeking licensing from Toyota

    I would like to introduce to you the Ford Fusion Hybrid [usatoday.com], which has been rated above the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima hybrids in numerous reviews.

    And while Nissan did license Toyota's hybrid technology, Ford did not. The Ford Fusion Hybrid is the first automotive hybrid drive train to be developed in the US, by a US auto company, and built in North America for an American car. So if Toyota is trying to preemptively squash competition with their patents, they are too late.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Reading the review you've linked to, the rating seems entirely subjective. I'll just cite it:

      Prius is lower-priced, has about the same room inside, has a handy hatchback configuration, gets better mileage â" and most of those attributes could improve when the 2010 Prius goes on sale in a few months â" so how could Fusion be the best hybrid?

      Simple. Fusion drives better. A car is, after all, a driving machine. Brownie points for saving somewhat more fuel or offering a cargo-friendly hatchback, but driving feel is most important.

      Also, mileage in particular is noted as mediocre for a hybrid in this review - and isn't that pretty much the defining characteristic for any hybrid?

  • by melted (227442) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @11:52PM (#28617521) Homepage

    I went to Toyota's UK site and looked at what's available. Most of the cars there are available with insanely efficient diesel engines, for some cars there's more than one option. And they're more environment friendly, since there's no battery to make and recycle, fuel efficiency is comparable, and the only harmful byproduct is soot, which settles on the ground.

    I would LOVE to buy those cars here in the US. Thing is, they're not available here. My plan is to wait until they are, so if Toyota wants to sell me a car, they better offer a diesel one.

    • I would LOVE to buy those cars here in the US. Thing is, they're not available here. My plan is to wait until they are, so if Toyota wants to sell me a car, they better offer a diesel one.

      Go here:

      http://www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml [usa.gov]

      or here:

      http://www.congress.org/congressorg/dbq/officials/ [congress.org]

      Write up a letter, and send it to your:

      *-> President
      *-> 2 Senators
      *-> 1 Representative in Congress ("House")
      *-> Governor
      *-> 1-3 State Legislators

      Tell them that you want a diesel car, and that they should be legal to sell in all 50 states.

      Toyota is NOT ignoring the market. The market is just too expensive, confusing, and arbitrary for them to bother with just yet.

    • by jabuzz (182671) on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @05:55AM (#28619399) Homepage

      Bear in mind that the mpg that you are seeing is based on the fact that an Imperial gallon is larger than an US gallon. It is 4.5l for an Imperial gallon to 3.8l for a US gallon. Naturally they get better MPG.

      That said the fuel efficiency of diesel cars in Europe is quite astounding, the Audi A2 was the best but no longer in production. The VW Bluemotion Polo and Gold do around 61mpg (US gallon), which is better than a Prius.

  • More power to 'em (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tuxgeek (872962) on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @01:20AM (#28618117)
    They expended big bucks on the technology over the years when the rest of the automakers were building crap like giant SUVs and Hummers. This is Capitalism 101 at it's finest. You take a risk when the market niche is young, and benefit when the rest of the world catches up.
    Toyota makes fine automobiles and the American big 3 deserve to go bankrupt for the shit vehicles they have been producing up 'til now.
  • From everything I've read, Ford independently developed their hybrid technology, then discovered that it was close enough to Toyota's that they had to license Toyota's patents.

    Nissan, on the other hand, is using Toyota technology itself, purchased directly from Toyota, the only major difference being that the gasoline engine part is a Nissan engine as opposed to a Toyota. The electrical bits are 100% Toyota.

  • I don't see hybrids like the Prius going anywhere. Serial hybrids and electric cars are the future.

  • by Bakkster (1529253) <Bakkster@man.gmail@com> on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @08:39AM (#28620203)

    Since when does Japan care about US Intellectual Property law? Sorry for sounding so harsh, but part of the reason the American semiconductor industry died is the Japanese companies didn't pay licensing on the patents for RAM. It's no wonder they could build it cheaper.

    Even today, I have several friends who design stearing columns for most of the major automakers. Toyota buys the minimum run of columns, then takes the shipment and reverse engineers it to build them on their own. No licensing or anything, so my friend's company just barely breaks even (the minimum order is just enough to cover the engineering costs).

    So now they're going to use the system that they ignore because they'll make money off of it? Fuck. That. Shit.

For God's sake, stop researching for a while and begin to think!

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