2012 Toyota Aqua hybrid (2012 Toyota Prius C)Enlarge Photo
Here’s an interesting question for you: which automakers are currently leading when it comes to electric and hybrid car development?
Like us, you might have the inclination to chose Toyota or perhaps Nissan. After all, the Renault-Nissan alliance has already spent over $5.6 Billion on electric car development.
German patent law firm Grünecker disagree. According to a list combined by its in-house specialists on patent law, Toyota is well ahead, filing 2,454 patents in the past five years for hybrid and electric car technology. Nissan, in second place, has filed just 899.
Grünecker claims General Motors filed just 35 hybrid and electric car patents in the past five years. For the record, we find that hard to believe.
But can a company’s patent filings really give an indication to what lies ahead for the company? And who really is leading the hybrid and electric car market?
Patents Don’t Always Equal Products
As any Apple fan will tell you, Apple Computer has always been big on submitting patent applications.
2012 Volvo V60 Plug-In HybridEnlarge Photo
Over the years, many thousands of patents have been filed by Apple with respect to new computer hardware, software operation and even the way we interact with our computers, but very few have made it into products.
In the automotive world, just like the computer world, not all patents filed make it into a product.
Why file them?
Because it prevents competitors from using an idea you’ve thought of, and ensures intellectual property is correctly secured.
Different companies have differing approaches to patents. Some will file a patent every time a new idea is thought up, while others will only patent ideas that are worth protecting.
We suspect Toyota’s attitude to patents it the former, not the latter.
Production And Sales Determine Market Position...
There’s no denying that Toyota, with its huge market share of hybrid market, is number one when it comes to advanced drive vehicle sales.
But to call it the leader based on the amount of patents it holds is a technological red herring.
Wireless charging mat - Nissan LeafEnlarge Photo
While we’ve no doubt that may of Toyota’s hybrid and electric car patents have made it into cars like the 2012 Toyota Prius, 2012 Toyota Prius V and 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, we’re equally sure that many of its 2,454 patents haven’t been used in a production car...yet.
Regardless of its filing, a patent only helps an automaker when it gets used in a car.
And without good business practices and an appealing, well-designed vehicle that customers want, no amount of patents will make an automaker the market leader.
...But Patents indicate An Area Of Study
Now it’s time to contradict ourselves, because while filed patents don’t indicate current market leadership or potential for a new car, they do indicate that hybrid and electric car technology is being actively researched.
Take the number of patents granted to South Korean automaker Hyundai/Kia.
While the automaker lags behind in the patent charts in the past five years with only 234 patents granted in respect of advanced drive vehicles, it has applied for 69 patents this year, placing it behind Toyota and in front of Renault-Nissan in the patent application stakes.
2011 Hyundai Sonata HybridEnlarge Photo
And when an automaker dramatically changes the number of patents it is applying for in a specific area of technology, the chances are it plans to use that technology in a future car.
But let us reiterate. No amount of research makes a product sell. Good design, affordability and reliability do.
What Can We Learn?
It’s clear from the number of patents filed by Japanese and Korean automakers that the Asian subcontinent currently lead in electric and hybrid car research.
And that means U.S. automakers, like Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, have a long way to go if they want to become competitive with automakers like Nissan, Toyota and Hyundai.