Battles over the ownership of innovations and product designs have raged in the auto industry since the first horseless carriages sputtered out of inventors’ garages. In 1911, Henry Ford won a highly publicized eight-year court battle with George Selden, who tried to patent the automobile even though he had never sold one.
Subsequent disputes have kept lawyers busy for a century. While the court actions once related mostly to hardware — a new wrinkle in carburetors or a better method to stamp fenders, perhaps — the advent of electrified vehicles is changing the game.
Valuable trade secrets now lie in the electronic controls that regulate the operation of motors, generators and batteries, in that shifting territory known as intellectual property.
That shift in the qualities that define a competitive advantage for hybrid and electric vehicles was underscored last week by the firing of three top Renault executives amid accusations that they had passed information to a “an organized international network.”
While the French carmaker, which has a partnership with Nissan, maker of the Leaf, has said no crucial technology leaked, the stakes in automotive intellectual property are high, experts say. And the valuables are not blueprints or styling sketches, but the huge volume of computer instructions required by these cars: the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid uses about 10 million lines of computer code to shunt power seamlessly among the car’s battery pack, power inverter, drive motor, gas engine, generator and other subsystems.
By comparison, Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner relies on a mere eight million lines of code.
Automakers therefore view leadership in control software as strategically vital, said Eric Fedewa, head of powertrain forecasting at IHS Automotive, a consulting firm based in Englewood, Colo.
“The next generation of vehicle propulsion is going to be very tightly integrated into the other electronic capabilities of the vehicle,” he said. Because of this, “the strategic importance of controllers and code is going to expand exponentially.”
Electronic-control I.P. already accounts for a sizable portion of United States patent applications related to E.V.’s and hybrids; Toyota has applied for more than 1,000 patents related to its current-generation Prius.
Other automakers and their suppliers are similarly raising their game in creating and protecting their electric-car I.P.
“It’s a little like the wild, wild West right now,” said Jon Lauckner, president of General Motors Ventures, the automaker’s new venture capital group. As an engineer who helped to conceive the Volt’s propulsion system, Mr. Lauckner says he believes the battle for electric-vehicle I.P. will only get more bare-knuckled in the next decade.
“I think the ball is up in the air regarding who has the intellectual property to actually take leadership,” he said. “When you talk about electrically driven vehicles, the 100 years of I.P. that came before is largely useless. Unless you possess a certain level of expertise in storage devices, power electronics and motors, you won’t control your own destiny.
“Once you decide to buy advanced technology I.P. from somebody else,” Mr. Lauckner added, “you’re going to buy it forever.”