Research into environmentally sensitive ways of running a car, AKA “green patents” have been in the news lately and it’s been good news for GM’s image. The Detroit automakers in general are not seen as technology leaders, particularly in terms of alternative energy. Bob Lutz saw the Chevy Volt as a way of changing that perception, taking away some green luster from Toyota. Since there is usually considerable time between a patent’s filing and its granting, patents granted in the last 2 or 3 years are a good reflection of what a company has been doing for the past 4 or 5 years, and there’s evidence that Lutz’s strategy was not just a PR job but also a reflection of a very large amount of research and development at the automaker. Cleantech Group, of the Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti intellectual property law firm, publishes the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index. The CEPGI tracks the granting of U.S. patents for solar, wind, hybrid/electric vehicles, fuel cells, hydroelectric, tidal/wave, geothermal, biomass/biofuels and other clean renewable energy. The law firm publishes the CEPGI quarterly and then tabulates the annual results.
Their year in review for 2010 showed that including all of those various energy and transportation technologies, one company, General Motors, was granted more patents than any other single entity. That’s quite impressive in light of the fact that GM probably doesn’t do much research and development in geothermal, hydroelectric, solar or wind power. I mean what are the chances that GM does research on tidal and wave energy? So GM’s patents must be have been granted in three areas, biofuels, fuel cells and hybrid/electric vehicles. With the launch of the Chevy Volt one might think that the main focus of GM’s research would be in hybrids and EVs, and indeed in 2010 GM was granted more patents in those fields than any other company, beating out Toyota, Ford, Nissan and Tesla. The actual number of patents in those fields though, are relatively small compared to the hottest field in clean energy, fuel cells.
Almost a thousand fuel cell patents were granted in the United States last year, and GM also led in that technology as well. That should not be surprising since a recent ranking by JP Patent Publication on fuel cell patents granted in the US over the past 30 years put General Motors in the top spot, ahead of Honda and the US Dept. of Energy. Now that ranking is a weighted ranking, judging both quantity and quality of patents, but it does demonstrate that GM’s commitment to fuel cell research (if not necessarily production) is not a recent thing. You shouldn’t think that GM has only been doing this kind of research at the post bailout behest of the Obama administration or as greenwashing. Though there has been a sharp uptick in the patents granted in 2009 and 2010, the same time that Mr. Obama has been in office, again, there is a lag between filing and granting so not all of that increase can be attributed to either the president’s policies or a desire to curry favor with his administration. Say what you will about GM, and TTAC and the Best and the Brightest have said plenty, you can’t deny that GM has probably done as much as any manufacturer in terms of basic research into fuel cell cars and probably over a longer time.
Actually, GM built an fuel cell powered electric vehicle, the Electrovan, in 1966. Its development was not without incident. Apparently one of the high pressure hydrogen tanks used exploded while one of the tests vehicles was being driven at the Warren Tech Center. The tank landed a quarter of a mile away. When they finished the show car, it worked, had a range of 120 miles, not bad for a first effort, and it was driven, carefully, for a short distance, maybe even shorter than that tank flew and then retired for the show circuit. It was never meant to be a production vehicle. Actually it was meant to be a Corvair, joining the Electrovair, but the large amount of tubing, the size of the hydrogen tank, and the size of the fuel cell itself fills most of the van’s passenger and cargo space. It would never have fit in a Corvair. The Electrovan is now part of the GM Heritage Center collection.
GM Electrovan fuel cell powered EV from 1966. Photo courtesy of Cars In Depth
Reading the tea leaves, or rather looking at the CEPGI graphs, you can learn something about the car industry. Honda is often described as having lost its mojo. GM’s #1 ranking in 2010 pushed Honda down to second place. It was also was the first time in years that Honda, a traditional leader in fuel cell research, was not in first place in that technology, falling the third place. Samsung was in second place. Even with that tumble, and with JP Patent Publication’s weighted top ranking for GM, Honda still holds the most number of fuel cell patents of any company.
It’s not quite deja vu, but how GM and Honda are perceived in terms of fuel cells versus what the reality is reminds me of how people remember Chrysler’s turbine car but are less familiar with GM’s decades’ long work on turbines. As an interesting coincidence, the Electrovan now sits maybe 200 feet from the three turbine powered Firebird cars from GM’s 1950s era Motorama shows.
If Honda is losing its technological mojo, what of Chrysler, the company that long staked its reputation on its engineering excellence? Chrysler, as an independent entity does not seem to appear anywhere among the leaders in the GEPGI, though it does show up as part of Daimler-Chrysler. Chrysler’s current parent Fiat appears nowhere, but fast rising Hyundai, like Samsung a Korean company, does appear.
The CEPGI study is fascinating and I’ve only barely scratched the surface here. Though automotive companies dominate the overall listings, as mentioned, car companies’ patents are filed in a fraction of the listed categories. The rest of the patents considered by the CEPGI are from a larger assortment of companies so you can get a good idea about who is doing what in the field of alternative and clean energy by looking through the Cleantech Group’s report.