How Many Patents Does It Take to Reinvent the Automobile?

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General Motors received more clean-energy patents in the past year than any other company, according to data released a few weeks ago. The data comes from the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index, published quarterly by the law firm Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti (which also provides data for our annual State of Green Business report).

In news reports on the findings, GM officials said its patents covered “hybrid electric vehicles, fuel cells and solar energy, with a focus on improvements to current and future technologies.”

That seemed both odd and interesting. Why was this venerable car company so focused on clean energy? True, GM had recently gone through a metamorphosis (not to mention a bankruptcy), around which it released a plug-in vehicle, the Volt, and made plans to produce other greener machines. But why was it racing ahead of other car companies like Honda, Toyota, and Ford, as well as other innovative companies, such as GE, Honeywell, Panasonic, Samsung, and Toshiba — all of which had fewer clean-energy patents than GM last year?

In search of answers, I dialed up Alan Taub, Vice President, Global Research & Development for GM. “We know the world is approaching one billion vehicles, and probably sooner than anybody thought,” he began. “The question is, can we do it sustainably?”

He answered his own question. “What we need to do is re-architect the vehicle and the personal mobility experience through the technology enablers that are converging in the next decade or two so that personal mobility can continue sustainably.” We spent the next 40 minutes or so parsing what that sentence meant.

Taub walked me through the problem statement. “Imagine the automobile was invented today and we were going to propose it to, let’s say, a venture capitalist. ‘Most of the time the vehicle is going to be carrying a single person, a weight load of about 200 pounds. I’m going to be putting that person in a 3,000- to 4,000-pound vehicle. I am going to power it by a single monogamist energy source — petroleum — and 80% of that energy is going to turn into heat, not into powering the vehicle.’ I mean, when you look at it that way, is that the personal mobility machine one would create?”

Of course not. But that’s what we’ve got. So, how do you go from today’s reality to tomorrow’s — the one where “personal mobility can continue sustainably”?

Taub recited the litany of changes underway. Lightweighting materials. Onboard energy systems, such as batteries and fuel cells. Sensors and controllers that ensure vehicles don’t crash into things or people. More sensors and controllers that allow cars to drive themselves at times — “autonomous driving on demand,” in industry parlance.

“The way we see it playing out, you will always be able to [manually] drive,” Taub explained, waxing on about drivers’ “emotional attachment to a vehicle.” But, he added, “There are times where even a driving enthusiast would rather be doing email instead of driving. So cars will be autonomous when you want it, but you can take over the steering wheel when you’re in the mood.”

This isn’t just some cool way to get through your email in-box while driving. Smart, autonomous cars could help alleviate gridlock, congestion, and pollution in today’s and tomorrow’s mega cities, explained Taub, by keeping cars moving more quickly at closer range while not crashing into one another, or anything else.

Not (Just) Invented Here

All of this — “reinvention of the vehicle,” as Taub puts it — demands new and improved technologies — lots of them. Hence the push for patents. But there’s a bigger story here, too, about how GM is seeking and finding the innovations it needs to achieve its vision.

Ten years ago, General Motors had just one facility, in Warren, Mich., that housed researchers in science labs. Pretty much every innovation originated in Michigan. About 5 percent of its R&D budget was spent outside the company.

Ten years later, GM has eight labs located around the world, and nearly a third of its R&D budget is spent outside the company — collaborations and strategic alliances with universities, national labs, suppliers, and countless startups. “There’s no way all the technical challenges in a revolutionary period of technology development will be done just with the brilliant scientists inside GM,” says Taub. “Much has moved to an open innovation network. It’s become a team sport where everybody from academics to suppliers are working in collaboration.”

The Future Is … When?

I asked Taub when we could expect these innovations because — let’s face it — we’ve been hearing about “the car of the future” for decades. When will these lightweight, crash-proof, self-driving, clean-running, electric vehicles be hitting the showrooms?

“The end game is a revolution,” says Taub. “But the nature of the business is that each of these technologies will be implemented in various stages across initial vehicles and then cascade to fleets. I think this future is within the 10- to 20-year timeframe. We’re not talking about 2050. We’re talking about a lot of this coming to fruition in high volume in the marketplace between 2020 and 2030.”

Is GM on the VERGE?

I then shifted gears, as it were, to address the emerging convergence of vehicle, information, building, and energy technologies that my colleagues and I have dubbed VERGE. Is GM a VERGE company — that is, is it doing business in all four technologies? Clearly, the smart cars Taub and GM envision represent a mash-up of vehicles, information, and energy technologies. So I wondered about the buildings piece. I expected Taub would explain how homes would eventually house devices for recharging electric vehicles.

That wasn’t where he went.

“I don’t’ know if you know this,” he said, “but the BTU level of the air conditioning system on your vehicle is on the order of that which you need for a 2,000-square-foot home. The reason is that cars require very fast cool-down.” Moreover, he said, most people end up spending more on the entertainment system in their car than on the one in their home, and their car seat probably costs more than their living room couch. “So is there a future where everything we put in a vehicle integrates into the living experience when you go into your home? Today, we consider them two distinct spaces.” Someday, he says, we could go that next step, where “the vehicle becomes not something you park and leave alone next to your home, but can it be integrated into the home. By the way, this has been an idea that we’ve been floating around lately.”

Which brings us back to the patents. GM’s labs have had a sixfold increase in patent filings over the past decade, says Taub. They include not just those related to advanced technology, two-thirds of which focus on energy, environmental, and safety. Some extend to the technologies that have enabled fully half of the company’s 140-odd assembly plants around the world to achieve zero-landfill status, and to other energy and environmental achievements that don’t necessarily show up in its cars.

Out-zipping Zipcar?

Finally, I asked Taub whether all of these whiz-bang technologies could actually reduce vehicle ownership and lead us to a shared-use system, the business model pioneered by Zipcar and its ilk. This, it turns out, is part of GM’s vision, too.

“We see a world where there’s ubiquitous connectivity and therefore things like sharing a vehicle where the system, which I’ll call the cloud back office, knows my calendar, knows where I want to go, and the world will be able to rent by the hour,” explained Taub. “Will the world go to shared ownership? Probably. To what extent is what we’re going to have to learn.”

But then he reverted to that waxing thing I’d already heard from him and from so many other car guys. “There is something about people’s emotional attachment to the vehicle they buy. In some sense, it’s a highly irrational purchase. Its use is maybe 15 percent of the day. Its lifetime is 12 to 15 years, though most first buyers don’t keep it that long. And yet people buy it and actually care what color it is and how it looks. So I think you’ll see a proliferation of vehicle models that will accommodate shared ownership. But personally, I suspect personal ownership will dominate for a long time.”

Maybe. But if the engineers — and the marketers — at GM and the other car makers really do their jobs, they’ll innovate their way to a world where there’ll be an emotional attachment to getting from Point A to Point B in a chic, green machine that we didn’t have to purchase, insure, maintain, park, or own.

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