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10 November 2021
Nothing drives innovation quite like necessity. The universal recognition of the need for zero emission transport is already showing a boost in innovation across different transport sectors.
Challenges in reaching zero emission transport are shared across the road, rail and marine transport sectors. Recognition of these shared challenges, and subsequent sharing of innovative solutions, would streamline innovation and accelerate solutions. It would also steer innovation in the right direction, ensuring that unnecessary repetition of innovation is avoided.
This is of particular note where the different solutions to decarbonisation of transport are considered. It is widely recognised that the three main clean transport options – batteries, hydrogen and electrification – each have their place in different transport applications. The challenges in implementation of each type of energy may be common regardless of whether the application is road, rail or marine.
For example, whilst it is generally accepted that battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are the best solution for passenger vehicles expected to travel short distances, road vehicles for long distance freight share similar challenges to rail. Problems with using BEVs for long distance transportation of goods lie in the lack of infrastructure and the time taken to power up. Although long distance road goods vehicles may be powered by hydrogen, one solution may be in the form of electrification, using the solutions available for decarbonisation of the rail network. Overhead electric wires to power electric lorries on motorways are being considered, with clear crossover with rail infrastructure. Trolley buses are another form of road transport which may benefit from shared know-how from the rail sector.
Where hydrogen is found to be the best solution for freight transport, the challenges and solutions are often shared by road goods vehicles and container ships. Infrastructure improvements are required on a large scale at depots or ports for both types of transport to improve the speed of re-fuelling. The known challenges of hydrogen production (in particular production using renewable energy sources) and storage are shared between the road and marine transport sectors.
Such cross-sector opportunities for collaboration or shared technological know-how should be identified at an early stage in order to improve ease and speed of development, and to avoid wrong turns.
One method of identifying innovation taking place across transport sectors is patent mapping. Patent mapping uses searching and analysis used to identify patents and patent applications in a particular area of technology, and for these purposes can be focused on a particular mode of transport, underlying technology or specific applicants. This can provide an understanding of the patent landscape in any given field. For example, patent mapping in the batteries field shows a sharp increase in the total number of patents published at the UK Intellectual Property Office covering battery innovation – an increase of 50% between 2016 and 2019 – correlating with the rise in innovative activity in that field.
As well as identifying technological areas where innovation is already taking place, patent mapping can be used to expose gaps in innovation in a particular technical sector (for instance hydrogen powered vehicles), allowing the identification of potential new areas of exploitation, and the companies or universities working in closely related areas.
Whilst just a part of the patent and wider IP story, patent mapping can be a powerful tool for understanding the patent landscape in a particular technical field and identifying the key players. Working with your patent attorney to generate a patent landscape can always help to identify subject matter for new patent filings, but in the road, rail and marine sector, with their shared challenges, it perhaps has the most value in facilitating collaboration and information sharing between interested parties, and providing for the identification of unexplored technical spaces, that could be developed together to ensure that zero emission transport is achieved as quickly as possible.
© Withers & Rogers LLP November 2021