"It is almost like the process itself has slowed down," Baycroft said. "Whether that is the U.S. patent office not being able to process these applications and grants, or it is the applicants themselves not having the bandwidth to prosecute them. It could be either."
But fewer new patents does not mean there is less innovation, cautioned John Adams, former executive vice president of Honda of America Manufacturing and now an independent judge for the Automotive News PACE Awards program. It is not uncommon in the auto industry, Adams said, for companies to wait to patent their technology when working on something large, keeping their cards close to their chest.
"Once you issue a patent, the whole world knows what you are doing," Adams said. "Most of the best companies I know that are developing new ideas tend to be somewhat a little late to the patent application."
The decline in patent awards also is not indicative of a lack of innovation in the electric vehicle space, he added.
Many of the 2021 patent grants were specifically related to the EV segment. Toyota Motor North America was among companies that pursued and won several patents in that field.
"This year's patent list represents our shift toward vehicle electrification, as evidenced by pioneering battery technology, as well as new IP to support Toyota's transition into a mobility company," Frederick Mau, Toyota's director of patent licensing, told Automotive News.
Toyota parent company Toyota Motor Corp. led the industry in patent grants last year, as it did in 2020. But its total number of awards declined from 2,079 in 2020 to 2,028 this past year.
Ford Motor Co.'s technologies unit, Ford Global Technologies, finished in second place for the year. But it saw a 20 percent decline from 2020. Hyundai Motor Co. received the third most patents in the industry, while Honda Motor Co. moved up from fifth place in 2020 to fourth place in 2021, swapping places with Kia Corp. Honda picked up just four more patents in 2021 than it did in 2020.
Two parts suppliers — Robert Bosch GmbH and Denso Corp. — were among the nation's top 50 new patent recipients.
While most of the world's largest nations saw a decrease in patents granted, China posted an increase, with Beijing Automotive Group and SAIC Motor both ranked among the most active patent recipients.