How Many Patents Does It Take to Reinvent the Automobile?

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.