Demand and need for electric vehicles is increasing. The EU aims to have 30 million electric vehicles on the road before 2030, and Volkswagen expects that by the same year electric vehicles will account for 70% of its production. To accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles the UK will ban sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030, making it the first G7 nation to do so. As an emerging automotive technology, electrification brings new design challenges and flexibility free of the constraints of traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. In the article below we take a look at some of the legal considerations that manufacturers will face as the burgeoning electric vehicle market matures.
Many manufacturers' first forays into electric vehicle production are based upon pre-existing models. These converted models are often termed "non-native" electric vehicles, in the sense that they were not designed to be electric form the outset. Whilst the outsides of the electric and ICE versions of the same model may look similar, the design constraints under the hood are often entirely different, leading to some interesting design modifications.
For example, compared to ICEs, electric motors do not require an air intake to produce power. Electric motors also produce less heat than ICEs and therefore require less cooling. In some models, waste heat from the electric motors is even scavenged to produce electrical power. Consequently, the region behind the front grill of an electric vehicle does not need to receive air. As a result, a common hallmark of non-native electric vehicles is often the presence of a smooth flat surface in place of the grill, such as in the case of the Volvo XC40 Recharge.
Smooth grill covers visually distinguish electric variants from their ICE counterparts, and have the potential to form a new and distinctive overall impression to that of the ICE vehicle. As such, manufacturers should be mindful that they may need to apply for additional design registrations to cover such variants, as there is a risk these might not be covered under any current (or planned) protection for the ICE version of the vehicle.
As a further technical difference, electric motors are generally smaller than ICEs for the same power output, and therefore take up less space under the bonnet. With spare space at the front of the vehicle, some models, like the XC40 Recharge, use this space for extra storage by including a so-called "frunk". Since such frunks are generally absent in ICE cars (with some notable exceptions for mid- or rear-engine vehicles), designers should be careful not to overlook design protection for this important feature.
Other vehicles, such as the Renault Zoe, use the front of the vehicle to house a charging port, so that the vehicle can easily be charged irrespective of which side of the charging bay the vehicle is parked. As front charging electric vehicles have been known for some time, it seems unlikely that this feature would be protectable under a patent. However, during charging or when the charging flap is open, an electric vehicle that charges from the front might create a different visual impression to a conventional side-fuelling ICE version of the same model. Designers should therefore be mindful that these differences might not fall under any current protection for the ICE vehicle.
Another factor affecting electric vehicle design is battery storage. Since batteries are heavier and occupy more space than liquid fuel, electric vehicle batteries cannot simply replace an ICE fuel tank and must be distributed around the vehicle. Commonly, the batteries are arranged below the floor to ensure a low centre of gravity. As a result, electric vehicles often have a wide flat floor with no foot wells, giving the interior a different feel to that of a conventional ICE vehicle. Again, designers should consider whether the interior differences between the electric and ICE variants of their production range are worth protecting under a registered design.
As demand for EVs increases, more and more manufacturers are designing their new EV models from scratch. These so called "native" EVs provide even greater flexibility over the design of the vehicle.
For example, Tesla, perhaps the most recognisable brand of native EVs on the market, styles its cars with a narrow front grill to produce a sleek and streamlined front end. The cooling requirements are met instead by a grill positioned in the space normally occupied by a bumper in an ICE vehicle. As a result, the Tesla grill feels unobtrusive compared to conventional ICE vehicles.
For other manufacturers, the grill itself may be an iconic design feature. BMW's new iX includes the car maker's classic kidney grilles. However, in contrast to Tesla's approach, the BMW grilles have been enlarged to a size bigger than they have ever been on previous models, and appear to wrap upwards and over the top of the bonnet. With no cooling function to perform, BMW now has increased flexibility over the shape, size and appearance of the iconic kidney design.
This increased flexibility might allow manufacturers to offer a wider variety of grill designs, for example including different surface patterns, finishes, or even backlighting or other illumination. In the case of the iX, BMW have even converted the grill to house radar and camera arrays to support autonomous driving. Clearly, such innovations merit consideration for intellectual property protection.
Some manufacturers are keen to differentiate their electric models from their ICEs models as far as possible. The Honda e, for example, has wing cameras in place of wing mirrors, which take up a fraction of the size. Such small wings certainly contribute to the overall impression of a vehicle, and therefore manufacturers should also consider this feature for design protection.
On the inside, the smaller size of electric motors enables the cockpit to be made larger. For example, the Jaguar I-Pace has a longer wheelbase than Jaguar's comparable ICE model F-Pace and therefore offers more front leg room, despite the I-Pace being shorter overall.
In the Honda e, the dashboard features a stretched display screen offering acres more infotainment real estate than most other vehicles, with additional screens to relay the wing cameras. The result provides something of the wrap-around feel of an aircraft cockpit. Again, such a distinctive feature would merit consideration for intellectual property protection.
Passenger vehicles are becoming increasingly integrated into our digital lives. For example, the entire Tesla range comes with WiFi and an independent LTE data connection to receive automatic system updates. Future innovations in electric vehicle design will therefore not be limited simply to the physics, form and operation of the vehicle, but also the functionality, usability and style of the infotainment system.
Evolution might be expected in graphical user interfaces by ensuring important or frequently used buttons are placed in ergonomic locations on touch screens to improve ease of use for the driver. Eventually, infotainment screens might include haptic feedback to emulate the "click" of a conventional press-button.
Away from the vehicle itself, many electric vehicles may come with proprietary phone applications to enable the driver to view the remaining charge, to pre-warm the cockpit on a cold day, or to receive a live feed from the vehicles cameras. Automakers may therefore wish to think about intellectual property protection not only for the physical vehicle itself, but the digital ways in which the user might interact with it.
Along with distinctive styling and innovative product features, electric vehicle manufacturers should also pay close attention to the branding given to their electric fleet and the likelihood of being able to properly protect that branding through trade mark registration.
For example, in many countries the single letter "e" when used as a prefix to a word is taken as shorthand for "electronic". Unless the element it is combined with is sufficiently distinctive, in the context of an electric vehicle this prefix could be difficult to protect under a trade mark. On the other hand, the letter "i" when used as a prefix is generally taken as a reference to the internet and so is more likely to be protectable. However, if electric vehicles eventually begin to be seen as conduits for internet access themselves, this distinction could be diluted.
Manufacturers therefore need to find a balance between branding that distinguishes the vehicle as electric without being so generic that it cannot be protected. The Chevrolet Spark, for example, clearly hints at its electric nature without straying into description. Likewise, the Nissan Leaf evokes the environmental ethics of electric vehicle ownership without alluding to electric power itself.
With so many new design possibilities offered by electric vehicles compared to their ICE forebears, vehicle designers and manufacturers should take steps to protect their innovation and branding. Even small changes to the style, position, or functionality of components could present an edge over the competition, and features which were once unthought-of might quickly become the new must-haves. At Marks & Clerk our intellectual property experts are here to assist automotive designers and manufacturers navigate the legal challenges presented by this changing technical landscape.
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