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Toyota Builds a Patent Thicket For Hybrid Cars 307

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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  • 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:Prior art? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Pyrion ( 525584 ) * on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @09:55PM (#28616835) Homepage

    Nope. Diesel-electric locomotives use the diesel engines to power electric generators that then power individual electric motors at each wheel. The diesel engines are not directly connected to the wheels. The closest car analogue is the Chevy Volt.

    Hybrid-electric vehicles, meanwhile, are basically just regular ICE vehicles that share a common driveshaft with an electric motor. They can operate entirely on electric, entirely on the ICE, or combine the two.

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

    by MBCook ( 132727 ) <> on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @09:57PM (#28616849) Homepage

    Those are series hybrids, which is how the Chevy Volt will work (when the gas engine is engaged). The Prius is a series hybrid as well (it's got a neat but relatively complicated dual electric motor pseudo-CVT system). Other cars, such as the Honda Insight (the old one, don't know about the new) was a parallel hybrid, where the electric motor provided additional torque, but couldn't run the car alone.

    Yeah, it's similar. There are some differences (trains don't generally have to deal with stop-and-go traffic, etc) but the idea isn't too far off.

    I remember reading in Forbes years ago that there was a car company (Ford?) who wanted to make a hybrid. They developed their own system and it performed much worse than the Prius (the first gen in the US). That, combined with the fact their system was so similar to Toyota's they were afraid of lawsuits, led them to license the Toyota Hybrid System (THS), which was later named the Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD), since the Fords of the world wouldn't want their cars being powered by a Toyota Hybrid System.

    It's a bit of a mess, but at least there are some hybrid cars. As other companies do more of this stuff (like the Volt, the Fusion if it doesn't use the HSD, etc) it will get to the point no one will be able to produce a car without violating patents, so they'll just cross-license everything and things will be the same as they are now.

  • 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:

  • 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:Prior art? (Score:5, Informative)

    by AaronW ( 33736 ) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:20PM (#28616961) Homepage

    You have the series and parallel confused. A series car typically has the electric motor inline with the engine to provide boost. This is how the original Honda Insight and hybrid Civic work. A parallel hybrid like Toyota's Prius and the Ford Escape can run on any combination of electric and gasoline. It uses a planetary gear assembly with the gasoline engine driving the planets. The sun gear goes to a generator/alternator (that can also be a motor) and the outer ring goes to the wheels and another electric motor. The CVT is basically just how it shunts power between the two motors. Mechanically it's fairly simple. If the gasoline engine dies it can use the electric motors to power itself. If an electric motor dies the car won't move. []

  • 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 [] 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 []: "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!

  • Re:Prior art? (Score:3, Informative)

    by jgc7 ( 910200 ) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @11:26PM (#28617359) 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.

    Ford buys 90% of it's hybrid powertrain from Aisin and Denso (Aisin is part of Toyota, and Denso is practically part of Toyota). Ford never developed a thing. The reason no money changed hands is because they agreed to buy the powertrain from Toyota at ridiculous prices. The whole thing is really quite funny, as Toyota/Denso probably make $1000 for every hybrid Ford sells, and Ford loses around $5000 on each one.

  • 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.

  • Re:Prior art? (Score:3, Informative)

    by ppanon ( 16583 ) on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @12:02AM (#28617643) Homepage Journal

    Nah. The really funny thing is that Ford could have spent money 10 years ago to also develop this stuff when Toyota didn't have any patents on it. Instead they spent the money lobbying congress so that they could continue to build gas guzzlers and wouldn't be bound to California's zero emission standards. In contrast, Toyota saw the writing on the wall and used Ford/GM/Dodge's stalling tactics to get a headstart on where the market would eventually go.

    The moral of the story is: don't hold long-term onto stock of blue chip "buggy whip makers", even if they do manage to lobby congress to pass laws that temporarily help their business. Is there any energy-related companies that you think that might also apply to?

  • 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.

  • Re:Prior art? (Score:3, Informative)

    by thermagen ( 995316 ) on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @02:04AM (#28618309)
    Patents are both an inducement to innovation and a barrier to entry. Hybrid motors are a case in point. I have an investment in Capstone Turbine, a promising low-emission microturbine venture. They lack the marketing clout or production efficiencies to stave off a larger company that could freely copy their innovations. I would not invest in Capstone Turbine unless they held patents. It is easy to document how patents are used as a weapon to curtail competition. However, the burden of a patent reform proposal is to answer a simple question: why would a small investor like me risk capital on a small innovator like Capstone Turbine if they couldn't hold a patent?
  • Re:Kudos to them (Score:1, Informative)

    by Necroloth ( 1512791 ) on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @03:38AM (#28618815)
    both your links state a $25 royalty per car (I know, I know... I read a linked article... so sue me :p )
  • 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.

  • Re:Prior art? (Score:4, Informative)

    by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <> on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @08:54AM (#28620405) Homepage Journal

    I could not tell after reading and rereading your comment if you actually understood the difference between a series and parallel hybrid, so here we go: In a parallel hybrid both the electric motor and the whatever-else motor (gasoline, diesel, air, whatever) drive some wheels somewhere. You could have electric to the front wheels, and gasoline to the rear; that would be a parallel hybrid. In a series hybrid, only the electric motor(s) drive the wheels, and the fuel engine (or whatever) is connected only to a generator which can charge the batteries. The electrical energy from the generator can be added to the output from the batteries to provide power for acceleration, but what is relevant is that there is no mechanical connection between engine and road. If the electrical and fuel engines both go into a single transmission which drives the powertrain, it is a parallel hybrid. Every hybrid currently available from a major automaker is a parallel hybrid, though as others have mentioned there are upcoming series vehicles, like the Volt. In most cases, parallel hybrids can only limp home without gasoline, if they'll even do that. However, in most cases parallel hybrids can be driven in any battery condition (so long as they are undamaged) if you refuel them.

    I don't know what "A series car typically has the electric motor inline with the engine to provide boost." means... In cars, boost is what you get from turbocharging... unless you're talking about Knight Rider. A series car by definition does not have the electric motor inline with the engine. AFAIK the only people who ACTUALLY have an electric motor literally in line with the engine is Subaru; I don't know how close they are to production but a year or two ago they demonstrated an Impreza with an automatic trans, and the torque converter replaced with an electric motor. Pretty hot. However, that is a parallel hybrid system...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @11:11AM (#28622681)

    Yea sucks that they have to pay their management millions of dollars per year too. Try lowering the ridiculous salaries of the top employees and save some cash.

Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced -- even a proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it. -- John Keats