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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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  • 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.

  • by jonwil ( 467024 ) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @09:49PM (#28616795)

    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

  • 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 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.

  • 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 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 Pyrion ( 525584 ) * on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:19PM (#28616957) Homepage

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

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

    by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:20PM (#28616959) Homepage Journal

    To be pedantic, historically speaking, there have been series hybrid cars. There just aren't any on the market today.

  • Re:Hybrid cars? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by fractoid ( 1076465 ) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:27PM (#28616999) Homepage
    I hope that, like half-Japanese girls, half-Japanese hybrid cars look exotic and very sexy. I'm sick of the science-project or iMac-humped-a-toaster designs that most people seem to put novel drivetrains in.
  • by symbolset ( 646467 ) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:34PM (#28617053) Journal

    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.

    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. There will never be a mass market electric car because these competing companies would rather prevent the electric car than share the market that destroys the internal combustion engine with another carmaker.

    Unless we do away with patents. Then it's a race to market with the cleverest implementation of the newest technology you can get, because that's what sells, and every popular feature becomes common (commons?) in a very short time, requiring car makers to make continuous improvement in order to stay in business.

  • 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.


  • by mattack2 ( 1165421 ) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:46PM (#28617103)

    I am not trolling, but I think an argument can be made (and has been made in many other slashdot threads) that patents (can) do exactly the opposite - advance progress, in the slightly longer term.

    While they arguably can 'prevent' progress in the very short term for someone who doesn't want to license the patent to make a related invention/device, for something that's expensive and/or time-consuming to develop, there is no incentive if someone else can come along and steal the idea immediately. At that point, only the very rich or very altruistic will make inventions.

    I am not saying that the ONLY reason people make inventions is to get rich.. but the possibility of that happening is IMHO a reason someone goes beyond just pondering a new idea into developing it further (and/or at least further enough so that someone besides the inventor can use).

  • 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.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:49PM (#28617135)
    Yeah! Let's take away the patents of anything that might benefit someone someplace no matter what.

    Sounds like the rantings of a freetard.

    What do you do when companies refuse to put money into research since there's no return because anyone can simply rip it off? We'll be put into a new dark ages.
  • Re:Kudos to them (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @10:51PM (#28617151)

    This is the same argument used for drug price controls - let someone have a breakthrough and then steal their work. All that does is keep people from investing in research. Think about it for a moment. If you spend a year of your time developing a new technology and your competitor proceeds to copy it, then to break even you have to charge a higher price than you competitor would need to since you have a year of your time as an extra cost. The idea is that if the patented idea is good enough, the competitor should be able to license it and still make money, thereby allowing further innovation and competition on the manufacturing end, while still compensating you for your breakthrough. Patent licensing fees can go a long way towards funding R&D organizations, kill this goose and you are left with whatever project seems fascinating to an academic/whatever someone can sell the government on funding. Though I am an academic, I trust the market's decisions more than the other two in deciding what innovations are promising.

  • by thule ( 9041 ) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @11:00PM (#28617201) Homepage

    Incorrect. GM *lost* money on many of it cars. I recall the number being around $1,000-$1,500 a vehicle. The SUV's were the only line where they actually made money per car.

    Personally, I think GM should have just let the autoworkers pull a world-wide strike years ago. In the long run they would have been ahead even though the short term costs would have been very painful.

    There is no conspiracy other than the will to survive. You can see why a company losing money on each car would *have* to fight against further regulation.

  • Re:Hybrid cars? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by fractoid ( 1076465 ) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @11:07PM (#28617237) Homepage
    Then explain, pray tell, why the Mercedes E-Class [wikipedia.org] looks pretty 'normal' and yet has a better Cd than the Prius or Insight?

    Achievable Cd numbers are pretty close for a wide range of vehicles, so most of the difference in aerodynamic drag is due to the difference in frontal area. There's really no excuse to munt up a car's appearance just to eke out another 2% improvement in Cd when they can reduce actual drag by far more simply by making it a couple of inches narrower.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @11:13PM (#28617281)

    There are hordes of Economics PhD candidateslooking at actual data to determine the real effects of the patents system. In the absence of hard data I am wary of peoples opinions apparently pulled out of thin air. Regrettably I find that those with the least knowledge of a particular topic hold the strongest opinions.

  • 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 Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @11:39PM (#28617441)

    "I think I agree. Patents should not be allowed to be used to hinder like Toyota is doing."

    Wait, what are patents *for*? You seem to want to have your cake and eat it too - that is, grant patent protections, yet simultaneously *not* grant patent protections. Either allowing them to profit from their investment through licensing or the exclusive use of their patentented technologies is the way patent law has of "protecting the inventor's rights and investments".

    The point of the patent system is to encourage the advancement of 'arts and sciences' by allowing inventors to profit from their inventions. Toyota is willing to license their inventions (as the article summary goes out of its way to mention that Ford and Nissan licensed the patents) - they wouldn't even be required to do that - they could just use them themselves, and refuse to let anyone else create hybrids that rely on the same technology, but I personally feel allowing competitors to license your tech is a rather reasonable middle-ground, and good for consumers (as long as they license fees aren't too excesive), so good for Toyota.

    I don't see that they are using the patents to prevent others from competing, so what is really the problem? How is the patent system *not* working here?

    As for your gripes about the costs of batteries, I can certainly see some validity in that complaint. It's one reason I'm still rather fearful of electric vehicles - sounds like those batteries cost more than most *engines* do.

    By the way, I appreciate your story about the dealer telling you the batteries should cost $1500 to replace, but it really costing $5000 - NOTE TO SELF: Get a binding contract from the dealer that they will replace the battery at or below the price the salesman tells me is the replacement cost, should the battery fail after the warranty has expired. If they refuse to provide such a written offer, then politely tell them "fuck you, asshole" and walk out the door.

  • 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.

  • by symbolset ( 646467 ) on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @11:41PM (#28617455) Journal

    Every new thing these days has many parts. No matter how clever you are you are unlikely to discover anything unique that can get to market by itself. And so you are blocked by all the myriad others who got to the patent office before you, or who might have. Instead of spending your time innovating new things you waste your brilliant years playing the patent game. Small inventors have almost no hope any more.

    This is not a new thing. I believe the commercial exploitation of the steam engine was blocked for 20 years by inventors with duelling inventions. Someone else will have to find the link for me - I'm on the portable.

    With seventeen years of wasted inventor's lives before you to hunt through for every facet of each new product you conceive, you'll shffle a lot more paper than be creative.

    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.

  • by jo_ham ( 604554 ) <joham999NO@SPAMgmail.com> on Tuesday July 07, 2009 @11:51PM (#28617505)

    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 right off the bat.

    They could have kept on with their own R&D, but it had already been done and was cheaper to licence to get the added bonuses.

  • 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.

  • by shutdown -p now ( 807394 ) on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @03:51AM (#28618897) Journal

    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 Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @05:21AM (#28619261)

    If patents had mandatory licensing your argument would be stronger.
    As it is, toyota is under no obligation to license a patent to a competitor they want to keep out of the market.

    The "rewards hard work of research" thing is a bunch of bullshit, basically - patents are about _control_. At least as they stand.

    I support their complete abolition, but a true test of whether someone supports patents idealistically (if misguidedly) or whether they're just in it for the monopoly rent is whether they'll support a patent regime where patent holders have no right to prevent implementation of a product, only to charge a licensing.

  • by dtmos ( 447842 ) * on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @08:05AM (#28619889)

    ...is to research and develop products for the future, not the present. It's called having "vision" and being able to (correctly) see where the industry was heading, and having products available when they're wanted.

    Toyota's understanding of what buyers will value in the future enabled it to identify low emissions as a key selling feature as early as 1992 [hybridcars.com], in the first version of its Earth Charter [toyota.co.jp]. Unlike US automakers, who likely would send this announcement (if it existed at all) to their PR firm to be published and forgotten, this program was acted upon by Toyota's R&D organization, as a bet on how the industry would change in the future.

    One of the most frustrating parts of US auto companies is their apparently ingrained belief that their industry doesn't change. You hear it from their laid-off workers all the time -- "I thought I would always have a job here. My father worked at this plant, and his father, and ...." The fundamental reasons for Toyota's success are that they expect the market to change, they have a good vision of where that change is going, and they act on that vision, by investing in R&D on the products of the future.

  • by bami ( 1376931 ) on Wednesday July 08, 2009 @01:52PM (#28625423) Homepage

    You could keep using windows XP for the next 70 years (assuming you could find compatible hardware), and it wouldn't get any worse.

    For what does Windows Update exist then?

UNIX enhancements aren't.