Electric vehicles – opportunity or infrastructure nightmare?

Electric vehicle and hybrid electric vehicle ownership is soaring and the recent release of several government transport infrastructure plans and roadmaps will no doubt lead to a demand for further technical innovation as competition in the electric vehicle (EV) market intensifies. With shifting markets and a fast-changing regulatory environment with respect to vehicle emissions and efficiencies encouraging innovation, protecting that innovation and comprehensive brand management become increasingly important. How can EV businesses ensure their intellectual property (IP) protection is up to the job?

A look at the report

The reports include the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership Transport Energy Infrastructure Roadmaps for hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric vehicles and also the updated London Infrastructure Plan 2050. The indication is that cars and vans are expected to transition to zero emission powertrains to allow the UK to meet its “greenhouse gas” reduction targets, necessitating the use of electric vehicles. The increase in uptake of EVs demonstrates that they are beginning to edge past the “early adopter” stage and toward the mainstream markets.

The expanding market and development of new technologies, such as wireless vehicle charging, provide exciting opportunities for the automotive industry.  However, they also entail huge infrastructural challenges as more charging points are needed and the electricity grid struggles with the increased demand.  As EV uptake increases, expected peaks and troughs of grid usage are also likely to shift to reflect charging habits.  Crude estimates suggest that an extra 40% grid capacity may be needed by 2050 to accommodate EVs (Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership calculations).

How should EV companies manage their IP?

IP management needs to focus on the strategic aims of the business – although these aims are not always clear to the outside world.

Companies such as Ford and Tesla, for example, have recently – and unusually – indicated that they want other companies – even competitors – to use their IP.  Ford has stated that it will grant patent licenses to anyone for an undisclosed fee, and Tesla has not asked for a fee or formal licence, but has promised not to sue for any “good faith” use of the patented technologies.  The question of what would or would not be “good faith” use is, however, unclear.

Their stated goal is to encourage innovation – so hopefully expanding the market and available infrastructure, which will in turn be a benefit for Ford and Tesla.

It will be interesting to see if this unusual approach pays off, although it should not be mistaken for IP being given away.  Notably, neither company has allowed their patents to lapse or has stopped applying for new ones, so they are still protecting their innovation through IP and retaining control of the IP in their patented inventions.

In addition to the patent portfolios, both companies have additional extensive IP in the form of trade marks, designs and trade secrets. As such, if anyone decides to copy a Ford or Tesla vehicle too closely a lawsuit may well follow.

While not all companies will want to adopt such an approach, it does illustrate the value that IP rights bring in terms of control and an ability to implement the business’s objectives in the marketplace. With IP protection for innovation and branding a company has the choice as to the stance it takes: in newer markets licensing can encourage collaboration and development of the technology, whereas in once the market becomes well-established a more enforcement-based approach to protect and grow market share might be required.

In order to make sure that the required legal protection is in force to allow these business and strategic decisions to be made and implemented, the very least a company should do is review its product lines and product development and ensure that the most commercially beneficial features of current and upcoming products have some protection.  Such features may include eye-catching product shapes or memorable logos as well as technical innovations. The automotive sector is unquestionably one where the consumer is driven by a combination of how the product looks as well as how it functions and therefore a blend of IP rights, taking in designs, trade marks and patents, should be considered. For electric vehicle and hybrid electric vehicle ownership to become truly mainstream, there must be consumer confidence that the technology is robust and also consumer desire to own the vehicle from an aesthetic and image perspective. The value of branding, to reinforce the key selling features of the vehicle – whether this is reliability or luxury or “fun-to-drive” – cannot be underestimated.

It is important to remember that patent protection is only available for new features – therefore any technical innovations should be assessed for patentability before the product is disclosed to the public.  In the UK and Europe, and some other key countries such as the USA and Canada, designs can be registered up to a year after first disclosure, although there are advantages to registering designs at the time of or before product launch – most notably if design protection is required in other markets, such as Japan and China, where the local law requires filing when the design is still secret. Trade marks can be registered at any time, although it must be borne in mind that difficulties can arise if an unregistered mark is being used by a company and then a third party decides to register that mark itself. Therefore a recommended approach would be to review and consider all possible IP protection before a product is launched or disclosed publicly in any way, as that gives maximum options and an informed decision can be made on the best suite of protection for the innovation and branding.