Tip-toeing through the hybrid patents minefield

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  • Image: Nissan1M2C hybrid powertrain for Infiniti M35h hybrid 2012.jpg
Image: Jon Beriesa 2 - Jun09.JPG

Hybrid-systems engineering veteran Jon Bereisa believes the hybrid and EV patent space is far from oversubscribed. (Lindsay Brooke)

The intellectual property (IP) behind hybrid and EV technologies is considered by many to be more important than the technologies themselves. The flood of patent applications being filed that are related to all aspects of vehicle electrification appears endless, leading some industry engineers to wonder: How crowded is the “white space” around electrified-vehicle IP?

To find out, AEI talked with Jon Bereisa, who has been deeply immersed in IP-related issues his entire career. As a young electrical engineer, he was part of a team developing nuclear rocket engines for a U.S. government program, and he co-invented the power-MOS transistor. More recently he was General Motors’ Director of Advanced Engineering and Technology Strategy (where he architected the Volt’s range-extender electric powertrain). Prior GM positions included Director of Fuel Cell R&D, Chief Engineer for Advanced Technology Vehicles, and an engineering executive on the pioneering EV-1. Now retired from GM, Bereisa is President and CEO of Auto Lectrification LLC, focusing on EV systems and infrastructure engineering services, in Bloomfield Hills, MI.

Q: Some engineers believe the companies who jumped into the hybrid and EV market early—Toyota, GM, and Ford, in particular—have locked up so much key IP around input-powersplit hybrid transmission designs that the “newcomers” including Hyundai and the German OEMs were forced to develop less capable single-motor/two-clutch systems. Do you agree?

No. It’s a reasonable assumption but I don’t think it’s the major driver. The major driver is incremental cost, and how much of it an OEM is willing to accept vs. the benefit of the technology. Those "newcomers" simply developed a lower-cost solution that delivers much of the value of the more expensive incumbent technology.

Q: So the “newcomers” haven’t been put at a disadvantage by the hybrid-patents landscape?

No! I absolutely do not subscribe to the notion that electrification or hybridization is all patented-out. It’s far from it, actually.

The best way to engineer is not to go to the Patent Office and read up on every damn patent that’s out there. Design, engineer, and develop the best system you can, and don’t stifle your peoples’ creativity. Bring your best stuff! If you run into patents, deal with them, either financially, or by trade, or what have you. Some of the best innovations aren’t in the base patent—they’re in the improvements that make the base patent really work.

Q: How so?

In reality if I’ve done a good job and violated your patent, but I’ve improved around it—and I own the IP related to all of the improvements—I can stop you, as the original holder of the base idea, from using any of the improvements. Ahah!

Now if you want to continue with your development, I have you blocked with improvements on top of your base patents. So, if a newcomer puts improvements around the base patent, the holder of the original base patent will have to come see me. That’s what I see happening regarding the early hybrid players and some of the so-called newcomers to this area.

Q: In automotive, patents seem to get traded back and forth.

That’s correct. It’s the "patent mills" that buy up patents and wait for people to step on them like land mines.

Q: A lot of the electrified-vehicle patents are related to systems control, correct?

Yes, and the systems are highly interactive. The lines of demarcation are basically wires and electrons.

In two single-motor hybrid transmissions, the difference between patents might depend on where the motor is located physically—is it in the transmission or at the flywheel within a clutch/flywheel/motor assembly? Then the torque converter input on the other end is the other clutch.

Q: What’s coming in terms of innovation that might fill some of that patent “white space?”

You’re going to see a lot of creativity unleashed, in the dimension of cost and in price/utility. You’ll see system-level controls solutions across the entire vehicle, not just the powertrain. Traditionally development was really not integrated at the auto companies. You’d have the engine-engineering guy sitting next to his transmission-engineering buddy in many cases, but the thermal-systems engineers were living on a different planet called Vehicle Engineering. And they didn’t talk. Now there are efforts to bridge that gap. Otherwise you won’t solve the issues.

Q: And you might end up with a product that’s sub-optimized or too expensive.

Right! Until now the hybrid-systems guys tried to solve the issues all by themselves, and I’ve seen that lead to excessive cost and complexity—such as two motors, four clutches, two inverters, all within the confines of the transmission [the GM Two-Mode system]. That’s quite a technical accomplishment, but with an $8000-$10,000 incremental cost! We’ve got to avoid super-efficient solutions at a non-usable price.

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