Automotive Industry doubling down on fuel economy innovation as new propulsion patents surge

The Intellectual Property & Science Business of Thomson Reuters, a leading source of intelligent information for businesses and professionals, has released the results of its study of the global automobile industry’s recent patent activity.
The findings, which are featured in the Thomson Reuters paper, “The State of Innovation in the Automotive Industry,” detail a massive commitment from carmakers to new propulsion technology, which jumped from fewer than 2,000 patents filed in 2009 to nearly 12,000 by July 2014.

The following are among the key findings in the report:

Propulsion Patents Explode: According to analysis of patent data from 2009 through July 2014, activity in propulsion technology grew from fewer than 2,000 patents to nearly 12,000—more than any other technology area in the automotive industry. It was also the only area of patents to reflect a year-over-year growth in the five-year span.

Toyota, Japan Lead the Way: With more than 7,000 patent assignments to the company during the period covered, Toyota is the auto world’s top innovator from a patent perspective. The company is one of five Japanese carmakers (the others being Honda, Denso, Seiko Epson, Mitsubishi) in the top 10, the most of any country. In contrast, the United States had one representative in the top 10 assignees—General Motors, with just short of 3,000 patents, ranked seventh on the list.

Hyundai Sets Blistering Pace: The one Korean automaker in the top 10, Hyundai, has burst onto the patenting scene. The company has earned the distinction as the fastest growing patentee, climbing from a low point of under 500 in 2010. Since then it is on a remarkable sprint toward the top, resulting in nearly 1,200 patent filings in 2013, enough to rank them third on the most-assigned list.

‘Connected’ Vehicle Technology Gains Momentum: After stealing the stage at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, the field of telematics—which enables Wi-Fi-style communications in vehicles and powers the sensors that enable self-driving vehicles—has made a prominent showing in the Thomson Reuters Automotive Industry report. Companies as diverse as General Motors, LG and United Parcel Service are actively patenting in the field.

Safety Patents Grow Modestly: Patent activity in the four remaining auto categories (navigation, handling, safety and security, and entertainment) stayed flat or dipped, with safety and security being the lone exception. Less than 1,000 patents were filed in 2009 in the safety and security classification, a number that grew to roughly 2,500 in 2013.

“The clock is quickly ticking towards Model Year 2025—where U.S. automakers’ fleets will be required by law to boast an average fuel efficiency of 54.5 miles per gallon—and the industry is working diligently to comply,” said Bob Stembridge, an intellectual property analyst at Thomson Reuters. “The 2012 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) mandate seems to have set the agenda for the next decade of car manufacturing and the huge spike in [the awarding of] propulsion patents reflect this prevailing trend.”

Data for this report were aggregated using Thomson Reuters Derwent World Patents Index (DWPI(SM)) to identify global patent activity in the automobile industry. Within each category, researchers analyzed the total number of unique inventions (each invention was counted only once) issued in published patent applications and granted patents between January 2009 and July 2014.

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