The automobile industry has witnessed a rise in the number of patent filings in the recent past. An increase in the number of players in the industry and the emergence of new technologies has led companies to seek intellectual property protection to protect their new technologies. Not only the technology but the appearance of an automobile's design is also sought protection under the IP system. Car makers have sought for industrial designs, patents, copyrights and trademarks to protect the visual appearance, brand name and functional features of an automobile. According to Thomson Reuters, the automobile industry ranked third in the number of patent filings in 2012. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) estimated an 18 % increase in automobile patent filings in 2013.
Alternative Power leads the pack of technologies in the Automobile Industry with the most number of patent filings. The stringent fuel economy standards introduced in the US has triggered a spate of new inventions in this segment. There has been a 182 % increase in the number of patents filed in this segment. In the year 2011, a total of 22,255 inventions were filed in the alternative power segment, with Toyota alone filing 1660 patents in this category of, the most of any auto company worldwide. At 495 patent filings, Honda ranks second, followed by Denso (457), Nissan (440), and Panasonic (429).
Innovative Transmission technologies rank second with 11,859 patents followed closely by navigation systems at 11,594. The other areas with significant patent filings are: safety (10,286); seats, seatbelts and airbags (8614); pollution control (7262); steering (6862); suspension (6393); security (5686); engine design and systems (5201); braking (4247) and entertainment (2734). The top patent assignees in key world markets are Toyota (Asia), Robert Bosch (Europe), and General Motors (United States).
Car makers are not only seeking protection in their home countries but also in countries around the world. According to WIPO, Toyota Motor Corp ranks highest among the auto makers that make use of the Patent and Cooperation Treaty (PCT) with 1,696 published patent applications, followed by Nissan Motor Co, Honda Motor Co, Daimler AG and Audi AG. But some auto makers like General Motors prefer to seek protection only in their home country.
In India, the maximum number of patents has been filed by Honda followed by Tata Motors, Toyota, Hyundai, Suzuki and Ford. In the two wheeler segment, TVS has the most number of patent filings. Out of the 179 filed patents, 75 have been granted. The company has filed for 91 patents in transport, 27 in engines and 24 in mechanical elements.
Bajaj Auto has 93 patent filings in India which include 34 in the area of transport, 28 in the area of engines, and seven in mechanical elements. As of now 38 patents have been granted and 55 are pending. Outside India, the company has filed eight patent applications in China, two in Singapore, two in Egypt and two in the US.
Automobile companies have also been in the thick of action in terms of patent litigations and landmark patent judgments. In KSR v. Teleflex (USA), a case involving Teleflex's patent on "connecting an adjustable vehicle control pedal to an electronic throttle", a person skilled in the art was acknowledged for the first time to be a "person of ordinary creativity" in addition to being a "person of ordinary skill". One of the well-known patent litigations in India outside the area of pharmaceuticals involved two home-grown auto majors- TVS and Bajaj.
Indigenous two-wheeler manufacturers in India are slowly beginning to prominently advertise their patented features in their new product launches. The significance of Bajaj's DTS-i technology in helping the then struggling company capture market share is already well-known. Recently, Mahindra advertised three features of the Centuro that none of its competitors had- an anti-theft immobilizer, a fuel gauge system and a system that displays the distance left before the fuel tank becomes empty. This was the first instance of a "distance-to-empty" feature being incorporated in a carburetted machine. These value-added features helped the Centuro break into the top ten selling motorcycles in India, something that Mahindra's first motorcycle, the Pantero could not achieve. Similarly, at the launch of Jupiter, TVS advertised its patented centre stand. These examples illustrate how automobile companies are able to leverage patents as a business tool, even in a price sensitive market like India. However, the same cannot be said of indigenous car manufacturers. The market leader, Maruti Suzuki has filed only 50 patent applications. It seems like car manufacturers, in contrast to two wheeler manufacturers, incorporate innovative, value-added features only in their high-end models and not in their mid-range models. However, with the two wheeler industry having taken a liking towards patents, it is but natural that the car industry will follow suit, sooner rather than later.