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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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  • 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.

  • 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.
  • Re:Prior art? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Maxwell (13985) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:02PM (#28616869) Homepage

    No, the prius is a paralell hybrid with electrical and fuel storage. The gas engine can drive the wheels directly. The electric motor can also drive the wheels directly without the gas engine running.

    Locomotives wheels are only driven by electric motors, and the electricity comes from the gas engine. There is no direct connection between diesel and wheels. There is also almost no electric storage between diesel and electric motors, so if the diesel engine stops, the electric motors stop.

    The prius real advance is the ability to manage and smoothly use whatever power source is best suited at any time.

  • Re:Prior art? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Pyrion (525584) * on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:07PM (#28616891) Homepage

    Yes, it was Ford, and it was functionally similar enough to HSD that upon close inspection, it might as well have been HSD. They licensed the HSD from Toyota while implementing their own design, the licensing done entirely for legal reasons, while they themselves licensed some of their diesel tech to Toyota in exchange. As the article points out, no money changed hands.

    Implementation-wise, what you've got is an independent traction motor and a generator that's slaved to the ICE. The generator's engaged when the battery is at low SOC, which you perceive as the engine then starts struggling to both propel the vehicle and charge the battery at the same time. The generator only acts as a motor in the act of starting the ICE. The independent traction motor handles both propulsion and regenerative braking.

  • Re:Kudos to them (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:30PM (#28617015)

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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: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, 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 MightyMartian (840721) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:58PM (#28617193) Journal

    I'm all for patent reform, but this seems to me to be a classic case of the appropriate use of patents. The parent is just a moron. Toyota put a helluva lot of money and time into its hybrid technology, why shouldn't it reap the benefits of it, whether through the sale of its own hybrids or by licensing the technology?

  • 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 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.
  • by NeverVotedBush (1041088) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @11:21PM (#28617329)
    I think I agree. Patents should not be allowed to be used to hinder like Toyota is doing. There needs to be a way for patents to be arbitrated and while still protecting the inventor's rights and investments, not allow them to use patents to prevent others from competing.

    Toyota isn't just locking up hybrid patents, they are also locking up fuel cell and control system patents.

    I have a Honda Civic Hybrid that just had its hybrid battery die at the 64,000 mile mark. It's well within warranty and Honda replaced it for free - not a cent cost to me. But if this battery died at 64,000 miles, hopefully I will get another 64,000 out of the replacement. When I bought the car, I asked how much the battery would cost to replace and was told it would be about $1500. When I picked up my car from the dealer after the battery replacement, I asked how much this would have cost had it not been under warranty. The answer was over $5,000.

    Instead of the 150,000 miles they said the pack should last, if I keep the car, I might have to spend $5000 at the 130,000 mile mark because the pack will be well out of warranty then.

    Until this happened, I had been thinking about getting the 2010 Prius. Since this happened, I have been looking at the VW TDI since it gets great mileage but doesn't have the hybrid battery issues. With this bit of news, I am particularly happy that a turbo diesel comes from pre-WWII technology. I'm sure there are patents involved with the TDI, but it doesn't seem like there are near the patent obstructionist issues that there seem to be with Toyota.
  • by Lonewolf666 (259450) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @11:57PM (#28617585)

    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.

  • Re:Kudos to them (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Fulcrum of Evil (560260) on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @12:13AM (#28617727)

    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.

  • 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 some Japanese manufacturers aside, there are NO serial hyrbid automobiles on the market today. There are some parallell hybrids where the junciton between the drivetrains is right at the single "gearbox", but it's still kinetic energy from the internal combustion rotating the ties, not kinetic energy spinning an alternator to create electricity to spin electric motors.

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

    by timeOday (582209) on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @12:49AM (#28617959)

    Toyota had and has as many big SUVs as any of the other automakers. Go check out their lineup.

    Sure. The question is, why did Toyota invest its profits from the last generation of technology to stay relevant in a changing world, whereas US car companies almost completely failed to do so?

    there are as many parts in a small car as a big SUV while the margin on the SUV is much more fulfilling.

    You mean "were." SUV's are getting dumped in fire sales. This resulted in the bankruptcy of GM, which only accelerated the trend. When the world economy starts to recover and oil prices surge again, will the traditionalists finally realize that the 90s are not coming back?

    Also, good luck with that battery pack - you must not have any laptops, flashlights, or toys to know how frequently batteries fail and have to be replaced.

    Now there's the GM mindset in a nutshell: "if toy companies haven't already solved the problem, we're sure not going to try!"

  • 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.
  • by JAlexoi (1085785) on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @03:41AM (#28618835) Homepage
    No. Software and process patents are there to prevent progress. Engineering patents have a very nice effect, of other engineers being informed about the technology behind the patent. In software it's the combination of copyright and patents that is the killer of innovation. As a reverse car analogy, it's like you patenting some process but releasing the source code under GPL for the solution.
  • by Necroloth (1512791) on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @04:48AM (#28619139)
    No series hybrids?

    hrmmm... check the Orion VI and the Enviro 200 ;) There are examples out there for every hybrid architecture but due to the pros/cons of each architecture, you may not realise where they've been applied. Series hybrid architecture have much larger components such as the motor which is sized for maximum output and not suitable for running at high speeds, thus why you wouldn't see them used in the family market but they are used in buses, as pointed in the above examples.

    disclaimer: I'm a Hybrid engineer for an automotive company

    *sigh* I've got such a bad Karma burn when I merely suggested that Linux was not easy for the average user that all my posts are now at -1 and /. now won't even let me make comments... sometimes I wonder why I even bothered leaving Lurkerville

  • by Bakkster (1529253) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (nam.retskkaB)> 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.

  • The purpose of patents is to prevent progress. It's no longer to permit an inventor to the exclusive use of his art, and perhaps it's never been.

    It's true... In the past 500 years in which patent statutes existed, no inventions have been made and we've made absolutely no progress in the technological arts. Why, just going back to the 1980s and the State Street decision legalizing business method patents, there has been absolutely no innovation since.

  • It doesn't have to be this way. Although the US Constitution allows the Congress the power to grant patents, it in no way compells Congress to do so. If they stopped doing it, the rennaissance of the craft inventor would energize innovation.

    Patent statutes have been around for 500 years. When was this patent-free "renaissance of the craft inventor" you hypothesize? 'Cause frankly, there's been a lot more innovation the past 500 years, or even in the past 50 years, than there was in the previous 5000.

  • by NeverVotedBush (1041088) on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @10:01AM (#28621499)
    That's the whole point. For a technology that can help the whole planet, mandatory but also fair licensing is the way to go - in my opinion. I certainly believe that Toyota should be entitled to a profit from their innovation. I also believe that their innovation should be protected. But this kind of technology is in an area that is pretty much essential that the whole world adopt. How do you balance the ability for Toyota to tie up other companies and prevent competition with something that needs to be adopted across the board?

    Volvo licenses their safety patents for free. They consider it for the greater good as well as good marketing. And there are a lot of Volvos on the road. I'm not saying that Toyota should just give away their hybrid patents, but there is precedence of a viable company doing that and making quite a bit of money along the way.

    The upshot is that if you believe that global climate change is real, humans have a very small window now to avert disaster - if that windows hasn't closed completely already. I think civilization as we know it and a billion or more human lives, as well as untold numbers of animals kind of take priority over patent rights.

    Let Toyota make a profit from the patents but don't allow them to limit competition or to choke off what could be a huge part of preventing disaster. These need to be mandated licensing with arbitrated fees.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @10:22AM (#28621827)

    Yeah, take note of the date on the referenced article: 1994. Chrysler was investing serious effort on hybrids 15 years ago! So what happened?

    Well, what happened was that Chrysler was taken over by Daimler-Benz in 1998. Any advanced engineering projects were canceled by Daimler-Benz as redundant efforts to engineering being done in Germany. In addition, Daimler-Benz killed off a lot of smaller fuel-efficient Chrysler car lines to reduce competition for German-made small cars. Large SUV's and trucks that had no equivalent made in Germany were all they allowed the US auto plants to make.

    Nine years later (2007), Daimler-Benz bailed out, the economic crunch hit and Chrysler took the fall. When is the US going to quit selling off its economic future to foreign vultures?

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