Hydrogen power and car-washing drones: Patents show where carmakers’ thoughts are going

Some are outlandish and unworkable; others could change motoring as we know it

Once we get through this Covid-19 crisis (and we will, given time) then the car industry will have some major decisions to make. While the scramble to create more carbon-efficient vehicles will continue, as will the drive towards the full electrification of the car, carmakers also have another issue to overcome – relevance. In a world where, eventually, all cars will have simple electric motors to propel them, how will each brand carve out a different niche for itself?

Well, one way is through innovation, and developing new systems and functions for cars that can, as the old phrase goes, “surprise and delight” potential owners. Having a look through a company’s patent applications can, sometimes, give you an idea of where its engineers and designers are looking. Or it may not. Sometimes patents are taken out protectively, simply to stop a rival company from doing something similar, rather than because there are actual, real plans to put the patent into production. At other times, the ideas are just purely outlandish, daft, or otherwise giggle-inducing and so, in the spirit of needing a bit of a giggle right now, here are some of the more interesting vehicular patents right now.

Vanarama, an online commercial vehicle leasing and purchasing company, recently put together a tally of the carmakers that take out the most patents. Currently top of the list is Toyota (perhaps unsurprising, as the Japanese giant is working on hybrid, electric and hydrogen-fuelled cars all at once). In 2018, the most recent year for which we have up to date figures, Toyota took out 2,554 patents. It was followed by Ford, on 2,149 patents, and Hyundai with 1,539.

Doubtless some of these are genuinely world-beating ideas, which could, when brought to fruition, change the face of motoring as we know it. Others? Well…

Changes shape

Toyota’s patent for a vehicle body that changes shape as it drives is an intriguing one. In theory, using extendable, foldout panels to improve the high-speed aerodynamics of your car is a sensible one, and really an extension of what many carmakers already do with spoilers and wings that flip up, fold down and extend. However, Toyota’s patent seemed to show a vast, extra appendage that extends from the rear bodywork to form an almost worm’s tail shape. Now, patent drawings are designed only to give a vague idea of what something might do, or how it might work, so the reality of such a system might be much more subtle, but it does start to lean towards the more daft end of the scale.

Definitely at the daft end of the scale are the exterior scent and fragrance dispensers, also a Toyota patent, which are noted as being useful for possible tear-gas deployment if fitted to a high-security vehicle. Someone's been watching too many Bond films in their downtime. Equally silly is a 2012 patent, taken out by one Peter W Ripley, which seeks to put a wind turbine on the roof of a car, which charges up batteries within. A nice idea, and one that is often suggested when it comes to electric cars, but clearly the thinking of someone who hasn't properly studied the rules of thermodynamics – you cannot extract more energy than you put in, after all.

A sticky bonnet, goes the theory, would mean a person is literally adhered to the car that they've just been struck by

In the “sounds crazy, but maybe just crazy enough to work” column comes the sticky bonnet and windscreen lasers. Now, both of these could, on face value, be the idea of sugared-up 10-year-old boys, but actually there’s more to both than that. The sticky bonnet idea is one of Google’s and it’s based on the theory that serious injuries are caused less when people are struck by a moving car and more when those same unfortunate people are thrown off the car, either when the driver brakes hard in response to the impact, or if they’re flipped over the roof by the speed. A sticky bonnet, goes the theory, would mean that a person is literally adhered to the car that they’ve just been struck by. They’ll still be hurt, of course, but arguably less so than they would have been if they’d bounced off the car and struck their head on an unyielding kerb.

Two oddities are proposals for a flying car and a drone that washes your car

Windscreen lasers? That’s a Tesla patent from 2018, which seeks to take scraping water off your windows with bits of flappy rubber attached to motorised arms, and replace them with… well, lasers. Lasers that literally shoot bits of water and dirt from your windscreen (and if Tesla has its way, mirrors, side glass, exterior cameras etc). It could be the best idea ever (windscreen lasers!) but equally could be just another slice of Tesla madness. We’ll see, I guess (or not see, if the lasers burn a hole straight through your retinas).


Other patents are now looking a little more mundane. An on-board electric scooter or bike? That’s been done to death, even though Ford took out a proposed patent in 2016. Exterior lights that project an ad-hoc Zebra crossing on to the road in front of pedestrians? They’re all at that now. A business meeting room built into a vehicle? Ford has a patent for just such a circular construction, but isn’t that just a van with seats and a table in the back?

Two final oddities are proposals for a flying car and a drone that washes your car. Now, the flying car one has been around for decades, and we genuinely seem to be moving in that direction, with actual products in testing now. These really can fly, but you couldn’t also drive one on the road. Toyota’s patent seems to suggest that the company still has ambition for an actual road-going vehicle that converts to flight, complete with a propellor sticking out the back, and foldaway wings. Daft? Possibly, but Toyota doesn’t usually do daft.

Definitely not daft at all is the idea of a drone that washes your car. BMW has taken out a patent on this, and while we reckon getting a drone to pick up a bucket and sponge could be tricky, this sounds like just the patent to take the strain out of Sunday afternoons.

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