On July 10, 1962, the United States Patent Office issued little-known Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin a patent for an invention that would soon revolutionize the automotive industry. The patent was for a three-point safety belt worn across the chest and hips that would eventually become a global industry standard: the modern seat belt.
It would have been hard at the time to imagine that by 1975, most first-world countries would have regulations requiring seat belts in all new automobiles, and by 1995, all U.S. states (except New Hampshire) would have laws requiring that seat belts be buckled while driving on public roads. In just over three decades, a revolution took place in the automotive industry, with seat belts going from unpopular and ineffective two-point lap buckles, to a staple of every new car coming off the assembly line, all over the world. When Bohlin died in 2002, Volvo estimated that Bohlin’s design had saved over a million lives since its inception. It has certainly saved countless lives since. Based on this example alone, it would seem like keeping a close eye on patents would be a good way to foresee massive changes coming down the pipe for any given industry.
Had a skilled career automobile engineer been there to get a look at the 1962 patent, there’s a chance they might have been able to see this grand change coming. However, until searchable electronic patent databases became available in the 2000s, you had to physically go to the US Patent and Trademark Office, or one of the satellite repositories around the country, and use the equivalent of a library catalog file system to perform a patent search.
Now that it’s much easier to keep an electronic eye on the worldwide published patent applications and issued patents of competitors, can patent publications be used to look for trends in any high tech industry? Although it’s possible to look at a new patent and imagine the impact that it will have on the future of an industry, it’s harder to do than one might think.
When Patents Don’t Predict The Future
As an example, over the past two decades, the automotive industry has been emphasizing increased comfort and luxury in vehicles as a way to appeal to consumers who are spending more time in their cars, commuting to work and chauffeuring their kids around to various activities. Comfort features in trucks and SUV’s have become increasingly common, with top of the line vehicles coming stocked with air conditioned seats, heated steering wheels, remote starting mechanisms, and even massage functions. Look no further than Ford’s 2016 F-150 FX4 trim model and you’ll find front seats that can provide you and a passenger with unlimited back massages.
In fact, apparently the engineers at General Motors (GM) aren’t satisfied with just back massages. If you were keeping an eye on GM’s newly filed patent applications, you might be surprised to see a design for what seems to be a foot massager. The patent shows a pneumatic system installed in the floor of the backseat of the vehicle that applies alternating pressure to the feet of passengers.
Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure if this design will ever make it’s way off paper and into a future GM vehicle.
A Few Reasons Why Patents Often Don’t Predict The Automotive Future
- Automobile design cycles are notoriously long.
Developing features and components for cars takes a long time. It often takes between five and ten years for a company to realize a new feature, from the moment the feature is conceived to the moment the first finished car rolls off the lot. A large factor in the length of the development cycle is the amount of testing each new feature is required by U.S. law to pass before it can be released.
- Once a feature is integrated into a design, it’s a 10-year commitment
Auto companies have to be totally sure that each feature is exactly the way they want it, because once they release a feature, they’re stuck with it. The 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act requires that an automotive company must replace or refund any part that is under warranty. This means that the company must continue to produce the parts to repair or replace all the features on all their vehicles until the last warranty issued to that model of car expires. As some warranties last for ten years, adding a new feature to a vehicle becomes a roughly ten year commitment to continuous manufacturing, both for the auto company and for their parts suppliers. Because of the rate at which current luxury or electronics technology changes, automotive companies can quickly end up locked into years of producing a totally obsolete technology if they’re not careful.
- Patent prosecution time frames don’t necessarily mesh with product development cycles
When an automotive company has a new design for a feature, whether unconventional or otherwise, they will file a patent for it as fast as they can. The technology may not even be there for the design to be built, let alone mass produced. Often, companies will file for patents so early in the design process that there’s no guarantee whatsoever that the design will ever see the light of day.
While patent speculation is certainly entertaining, it’s often not a great way to determine what new features a company may actualize in the future. Take for example Toyota’s patent for a feature that would electronically redesign or completely remove the seats in a minivan or car. Will this ever reach production? Unlikely, but impossible to say for sure. Still, if you’re in a fast moving industry, like mobile devices or displays, you may want to keep an eye out on the patent filings of your competitors as they may provide a good indicator of how these competitors are spending their research (and legal) dollars.
The moral of the story? Patents are expensive. The thing is, your IP is only as valuable as the work you put into building it.
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