With the Australian Grand Prix returning in March, Melbourne will once again play host to the fastest race cars in the world.
For some, the race is the engineering Olympics. An action-packed sporting spectacular, each car on the grid representing decades of hard-fought improvements in material, mechanical, safety and software engineering all of which embodied into a single (very fast) car. For others, the Grand Prix is a noisy and inconvenient traffic disruption. Whatever your feelings toward the event, motorsport is attributed with developing or refining a variety of technologies which help to improve safety and performance in many road vehicles today.
Traction control electronic systems were significantly improved in 1980s Formula One racing and form an important part of Electronic Stability Control – made compulsory for Australian road vehicles in 2013. Tyre compounds are improved every year in Formula One racing and help improve the durability and safety of road cars. Disc brakes had been successfully applied to aircraft during WWII, but found mainstream road car adoption after helping Jaguar to finish 1st, 2nd and 4th in the 1953 24 hour of Le Mans. Trams and locomotives have utilised regenerative braking for almost a century, however the technology has been significantly improved after the Kinetic Energy Recovery system was introduced into the Formula One Championship in 2009. This technology is now present in most hybrid and electric vehicles to reduce fuel consumption and/or supplement engine power. Ongoing improvements in electric vehicle technology are being made in ‘Formula E’, an exciting electric vehicle racing Championship established in 2014.
With motorsport innovating almost continuously, the query sometimes arises, “why don’t racing teams patent their inventions?” The answer is that most companies do seek to protect racing-derived improvements where the technology has potential in road-vehicle applications. However, patent protection is of little value in professional racing because the guidelines prescribing which technologies are allowable are controlled by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), and are also normally agreed upon by the racing teams. Furthermore, technology evolution in motorsport is so rapid that many improvements would be obsolete by the time the patent application had progressed through the examination process. Instead, and where possible, racing teams and their suppliers choose to keep proprietary tuning configurations as a trade secret to maintain a short term competitive advantage.
In this regard, the motorsport microcosm is a good reminder to keep sight of commercial goals when considering IP protection. In some instances, patent protection can be enormously valuable where it provides an effective monopoly over a commercially desirable improvement. However patents are not an automatic ticket to success and are not always appropriate in fast moving industries, or where a monopoly could be curtailed by regulators intent on maintaining a level playing field. In this instance, being quick to market coupled with trade secrets and/or trade marks may be the best strategy.