A surge of automaker patents in recent years reflects how the companies' technology development is returning in-house, a U.S. patent expert says.
The Patent Board, which tracks and analyzes innovation and patents in 17 industries worldwide, ranked five automakers in the top 10 companies in its 2011 automotive and transportation industry scorecard.
The rankings, released last month, include 183 companies and are based on the number of patents granted in 2011 and their impact on technology.
General Motors earned the top spot, with 1,123 U.S. patents granted for global product and global powertrain engineering, global r&d and OnStar organizations, GM said in a statement.
Other automakers in top 10 for 2011 are Toyota, No. 2 with 1,111 patents; Honda, No. 3 with 1,049; Ford, No. 7 with 439; and Nissan, No. 10 with 267.
Karl Wilhelm, president of the Patent Board, said automakers have replaced suppliers among the top spots on the scorecard.
"In the past, auto companies moved a lot of the system development to suppliers so you saw the suppliers ranked a lot higher," he said. "In the last two or three years, the auto companies have been pretty strapped and took development into their own hands. You're going to see them step up and be a lot more in the lead now."
'Redefining the automotive DNA'
Alan Taub, GM vice president of global r&d, said in a statement: "We are in the midst of redefining the automotive DNA, and these efforts are driving our people to reinvent every subsystem on the vehicle."
Because many smaller suppliers have technologies that automakers want, those suppliers will be targets for acquisition, Wilhelm predicted.
Geoffrey Celhar, the Patent Board's managing director, said electric and hybrid vehicle technology seems to be driving the automakers' patent boom.
"Most people that have come to us are looking at electric vehicles and other hybrid technologies," he said. "Up until now it hasn't really been the automakers. It's been other entities in electronic instruments and industrial components that have been asking about the electric vehicle space. Electric vehicles are such a hot topic in the product marketplace."
Celhar says GM has made a huge leap from 2009, when it ranked No. 5 on the scorecard with 512 patents. Other automakers such as Honda, which had 784 patents in 2009, also have shown significant growth.
"That certainly has signaled that [automakers] are investing in their own technology and patent portfolios," he said. "They're probably getting a lot of attention from suppliers and other manufacturers."
Quiet brakes, eAssist advancement
Among GM's patents in 2011 are quiet brakes, which are designed to absorb vibrations and mute squeal and are expected to be available on some cars and trucks within two to three years; OnStar voice recognition, which identifies the location of a speaker within a vehicle and adjusts its microphone to respond to location-specific commands; and eAssist thermal management, which maintains occupant comfort during engine shut-off and prevents engine shut-off if comfort will be lost, GM said.
Most of GM's patents in 2011 dealt with transmissions and batteries, according to the Patent Board.
Ed Mantey, vice president of the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., said Toyota is focusing on technical innovations in hybrids, fuel cells, batteries, electronics and material development.
"The majority of Toyota patents were issued in the areas of alternative fuels and safety," he said. "One contributing factor to the number of patents received is the increased development responsibility at the Toyota Technical Center."
From the 2010 scorecard, GM moved up two spots from No. 3, while Toyota moved up two spots from No. 4. Honda dropped one spot and Ford and Nissan each fell two spots.
"There's a real war going on internationally in intellectual property and the auto industry is probably the most competitive," Wilhelm said. "There are a lot of winners and losers in cars."