This article first appeared in Automotive World.
At face value, the gulf between the average family car, and the kind of high-octane machines we see tearing through the streets of F1 circuits in Monaco and Singapore might seem unbridgeable.
In reality however, motorsports has long been the laboratory in which innovative new automotive technology is trialled, and in the DNA of your family car are things first tested on the race track. Paddle-shift gear changers and kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS) are a couple of the more exotic innovations to have made it from motorsport into everyday driving, whilst the disc brake is a more humble one that we will all be familiar with.
As environmental concerns force changes in consumer car design and manufacture, this theme continues in motorsport also. One of the most exciting developments in motorsports in recent years has been the emergence of Formula E, which aims to showcase the rapid progress being made towards delivering high-calibre electric vehicles capable of matching combustion engine vehicles on every front. Formula E is quickly becoming a catalyst for innovation, and an opportunity to showcase that innovation on an international stage. As stated by the organisers of Formula E themselves, the race aims to be a:
“Technological and sustainable development test bed for some of the leading companies in and out of motor racing to address mobility and environmental issues”.
Transport remains one of the most innovative sectors of the economy. Indeed, until recently, transport was the most popular category for patent filing at the European Patent Office. Despite an apparent recent drop in the number of transport specific patents filed in the last year, the sector continues to innovate.
In many ways the modest decline in patent filing masks the very high-tech automotive innovation which might not fall into traditional ‘transport’ filing categories. Sophisticated on-board technology, sensors for safer driving and the complex algorithms that underpin self-driving vehicles, will all be filed under categories more related to software and computing than engines and drivetrains. Machine learning too is a technology with increasingly broad applications in everything from traffic coordination to rail and air traffic control and again is something that may not be captured in the ‘transport’ category at the EPO.
In motorsport though we see a lack of patenting activity, with the competitive nature of motorsport perhaps acting as a disincentive to the pursuit of patents. Timing can be a significant issue. Technology at the top of the racing pyramid, where most money is spent, can change incredibly quickly and what is successful one season might be overtaken by a new technology in the next. Registering intellectual property like patents is a meticulous process, so isn’t always appropriate in the fast paced world of motorsports.
A further disincentive is that it is often the teams themselves that decide which new technologies to allow or prohibit. Technology that is the subject of a patent application will be published by the patent authorities (albeit after a period of 18 months). If a patent application is published and it looks like it relates to a technology that gives a team the edge over its rivals, other teams could well instigate a rule change to outlaw the innovation. So, whilst a team may possess a patent right that they could license out to mainstream auto manufacturers, they will be prevented from using the technology on the race track.
While the licensing out the patented technology to other manufacturers may be a lucrative tactic employed in many innovative industries, it seems that traditionally the disadvantages have outweighed the benefits for motorsport teams.
Despite a novel approach to intellectual property however, motorsports continues to drive the innovation that will define the cars of tomorrow. With their large teams of highly skilled engineers and often huge budgets, the race to deliver cars fit for the future will continue to excite, both on and off the track. A challenge for the industry in general, and race teams in particular, is how they can avoid giving away their innovative technology for free.