Sending an idea to a car manufacturer
January 13, 2019 1:40 AM   Subscribe

I have a way of increasing increasing the range of vehicle (ICE or electric) by 5% or so. I'm only interested in the idea going to Nissan or Tesla (with preference for the latter). How would I go about this? I have a CAD model of the idea. Tesla seems to have become enough of a bureaucracy that they have no clear ideas box on the web

I generate ideas all the time that are well outside my core competency and would happily give this away - my grandfather went bankrupt patenting things so I'm not interested in any of that, plus I'm busy with my own thing, but at the same time I don't want to scatter my ideas for anyone to use.
posted by unearthed to Technology (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Companies don't want your ideas, from fear that if they actually use one, either on purpose or by coincidence, it will lead to a lawsuit. Getting a job there, and thus signing away your rights to any creative output while in their employ, is the only way you'll ever get your ideas considered by the specific company.
posted by COD at 5:45 AM on January 13, 2019 [13 favorites]

long shot, but tweet at elon a "what if X" sort of question, where X is the thing that would change with your invention. See if you can nerd-snipe him.
posted by zippy at 8:01 AM on January 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

Yeah, tweet Elon. He's always on Twitter.
posted by sockermom at 8:45 AM on January 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Most companies are extremely hesitant about using unsolicited ideas from random strangers. I doubt even Tesla would go near it.

Unfortunately what you are doing puts you fairly deep in crank territory. I suspect Musk gets a lot of "here's my great idea"-type messages; certainly worth a try if you want to do it, but I think the odds are very much against it.

If you really think this is a commercially viable idea, I would probably apply for a patent; I'm not sure what your grandfather did that drove him to bankruptcy, but a single patent as an independent inventor is not astronomically hard or expensive. The USPTO is actually pretty reasonable to work with, and there have been specific changes made in recent years to make it easier for individuals and "micro-entities" to obtain patents. The patent would give you a thing that you could sell/assign to another party, which would make it easier for them to actually use without creating a lot of uncertainty over future liability. You may also find out that you're not the first person to have the idea, and that it's patented already (such has been my experience on the several occasions I thought I had really great, novel, commercially-viable ideas) and has been investigated and rejected for whatever reason by the market.

Alternately, you could just document your idea and publish it, effectively open-sourcing it. This wouldn't give you any patent protection (although you would still have copyright over the published description itself), and since the US switched from first-to-invent to first-to-file in 2013 it means someone else could conceivably patent it instead. But depending on how much work is in the copyrightable domain (specific implementation) you might still have effective control over it via licensing. Depends on the exact nature of the thing.

The only other thing I can think of would be to find someone in the academic community working in that field, and reach out to them to see if they believe the idea has technical merit, and if it does perhaps they'll find it interesting. But anyone high-profile may get a fair number of crank "great ideas" on a regular basis, so I wouldn't be surprised if the reaction is lukewarm there too. (And most research universities are almost as hesitant to get involved in potentially litigious IP situations as big companies are, so they may run away for that reason.)

Unfortunately, your desire to have control over who uses and how your idea is used, is not really compatible with your desire not to use the specific legal mechanism that's provided for exactly that purpose.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:34 PM on January 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

Just to address this, first to file doesn’t mean that someone else can patent an idea you published. The publication itself would be considered prior art and could be used to invalidate the patent. (Ideally, the patent wouldn’t issue, but in practice the only art searched is other patents so you would probably have to follow up directly with the office after the patent application is published.)
posted by doomsey at 4:47 PM on January 13, 2019

One reason to attempt a patent application is that — and I mean no disrespect — it is *exceedingly* unlikely that any innovation to a current car or truck design (let alone one that is platform agnostic as to power train) and that would deliver a comparatively *enormous* 5% efficiency gain hasn’t been conceived and considered a hundred ways already, by engineers at every manufacturer. Each of them has multiple teams of PhD engineers trying to solve for much smaller gains than that at every quantifiable edge of the problem. The big companies spend millions on wind tunnel testing for a 1% improvement over the last model year with a slight change in sheet metal. The other aspect is the cost of implementing an idea is huge, and always involves tradeoffs — at a minimum requiring extensive testing, adding weight, changing complex manufacturing processes, and requiring regulatory compliance in dozens of countries. All this adds costs in a highly price sensitive market (and one that, with current oil prices, is not currently all that efficiency-driven, witness the death of the non-luxury sedan now underway).

For all these reasons, and because as mentioned above there is a universe of cranks out there from which brilliant innovations haven’t really emerged since the intermittent wiper, without at least passing through the racing world, where one-off geniuses can still get vast sums of money to build their perfect cars, the opinions above are on point.

Indeed you likely will not get to pitch your idea to a major car company *without* a patent. But unless you’re filthy rich and can hire people, you’re going to need to partner with an engineer and build a prototype and do some certified testing and take it to trade shows and racing shows and start an entire business around the invention to market it and be taken seriously.

Automobiles were the original assembly line product. Their design and manufacture is a huge global business subject to factors as diverse as currency fluctuations and wars and the cutting edges of materials science and aerodynamics.

Super discouraging I know. If it’s really a simple and awesome idea that can be implemented in an aftermarket product and you really don’t care about making a dime from it, make a good web or video presentation of it and start pitching it on the tuner forums for the various performance car brands (and all the relevant Reddit groups too). A simple trick that delivers 5% improvement in mileage would definitely interest people who have no hesitation to fabricate body parts or design electrical circuits or rebuild motors or change the gear ratios in their differential. That is, as long as the physics and the engineering implementation made sense.
posted by spitbull at 5:39 PM on January 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks everyone and thanks spitbull - it's something I know they're working on that gives them a 5-7% gain, but they haven't quite got there.
posted by unearthed at 9:21 PM on January 13, 2019

If so, then it is even more unlikely — vanishingly so — that you’ve come up with a solution that hasn’t been modeled and there must be a business case for not proceeding with it.

Otherwise, you’re saying you know more about engineering than the collective wisdom of thousands of real engineers whose whole job all day and every day is to think about these problems, model them on computers, build models and prototypes, and so forth, with huge budgets and expensive equipment. And if it’s a known efficiency gain technique, then every single carmaker is working on it. Or has worked on it and rejected it.

Take Mazda’s new HCCI motor, a gas motor that uses a diesel-like compesssion mechanism for combustion, while retaining spark combustion for the purpose of controlling timing. This is said to yield about a 5% efficiency improvement for the same displacement motor in sparkplug-only format. It cost millions for Mazda to refine this enough to put in passenger cars (as SkyactivX) starting this year.

HCCI was an idea the entire industry knew about and numerous companies have been working on for 20+ years. The idea is older than that and would basically occur to anyone who knew how diesel and gas combustion worked — hey, why not combine them? You get more diesel-like efficiency and hp/torque, with the lower emissions of gas and improved efficiency. What’s not to like?

Well, Mercedes and BMW and numerous other companies had projects developing HCCI too. It began showing up on manufacturer-sponsored race cars in the 80s. Racing is where such technologies are first tested and developed. But the other makers decided that the downsides (cost and potential loss of durability for engines, as HCCI timing is very difficult to control with gas and easily creates timing issues and knock) — hence Mazda’s hybrid of compression and spark ignition was a solution. But one that cost millions and took years to develop and that other manufacturers had decided just wasn’t worth it in their business plans, which include moving away from ICE engines anyway. Mazda is trying to keep ICE engines profitable and competitive with electric and hybrid cars by pushing them to theoretical limits of efficiency. That’s their corporate approach. So they invested big money in a perfectly useful idea that had been around a while and other makers had rejected or were developing much more slowly.

You should google the story of HCCI, once someone’s good idea, known for decades by car companies, developed in different versions for racing by several of them, and brought to market for commodity cars for the first time this year by Mazda.

It gets them about a 5% gain in efficiency in a 2.5l naturally aspirated 4 cylinder that already has years of prior development for efficiency by other means.

If your idea solves a basic implementation problem for a known technology, the chances are really high engineers at Toyota or GM have thought about it, modeled it, run it by the ran counters, and put it back on the shelf. No company leaves an easy 5% efficiency improvement on the shelf.
posted by spitbull at 4:35 AM on January 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

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