The electric vehicle industry is rapidly expanding, and it presents many new challenges to the manufacturers of traditional petrol and diesel car parts due to the different performance characteristics of electric vehicles.
One such performance characteristic of electric vehicles is the increased torque that electric motors produce when compared with internal combustion engines. Indeed, it is this high torque that made the Tesla Model S the fastest accelerating production car ever tested by ‘Motor Trend’.
However, perhaps unsurprisingly, transferring so much power from the car to the road can take its toll on the tyres. Goodyear report that traditional tyres can wear out up to 30% faster on electric vehicles, due to the high torque, as well as the additional weight of the batteries.
This has led many companies to develop new tyres especially designed for electric vehicles, including Goodyear’s EfficientGrip Performance prototype tyre with Electric Drive Technology. One of the key features of the new tyre is the pattern of its tread. The tread has been designed with thinner sipes (the small channels) which allow for a larger contact surface between the tyre and the road, meaning the tyre can cope better with high levels of torque.
In addition, the tread design also prevents sound waves from entering the grooves, reducing tyre noise. This is particularly advantageous for electric vehicles, as the lack of an internal combustion engine makes the car much quieter, and so road noise can sound much louder.
In order to gain the most commercial value from their new tyre, Goodyear will likely be seeking patent protection for the various new and inventive aspects of it. This may well include the tyre tread pattern. This raises an interesting point as ‘aesthetic creations’, which a pattern would likely fall under, are explicitly excluded from patentability under the European Patent Convention.
However, ‘aesthetic creations’ are only excluded to the extent to which the patent application relates to this subject matter ‘as such’. While the European Patent Office (EPO) would view the pattern itself as aesthetic, the ‘substrate’ on which the pattern exists, that is the physical tyre itself, would be considered technical in nature. Therefore, a tyre with the patterned tread would not be an aesthetic creation ‘as such’, and would not be excluded from patentability.
Additionally, if the pattern of the tyre tread gave rise to a technical effect, this could give the pattern itself a ‘technical character’, allowing it to be considered when evaluating the novelty and inventiveness of the tyre. Indeed, the Guidelines for Examination, published by the EPO, uses the specific example of a tyre when discussing the patentability of aesthetic creations:
‘A feature which might not reveal a technical aspect when taken by itself could have a technical character if it brings about a technical effect. For example, the pattern of a tyre tread may actually be a further technical feature of the tyre if, for example, it provides improved channelling of water.’ – Guidelines for Examination, G-II, 3.4
Therefore, if the tyre with the patterned tread satisfied the other requirements for patentability, notably being new and inventive, then it would be possible for the tyre to be protected by a patent.
Additionally, other forms of protection could be investigated. One suitable form of protection may be registered designs. A registered design protects the appearance of a whole or a part of a product, including its shape, texture, materials, and ornamentation. As many of the benefits of the new tyre are derived from its shape and ornamentation (in this case the pattern of the tread), a design could be an effective form of protection for the tyre.
In particular, designs are significantly cheaper than patents, and generally faster to obtain. This is in part because design applications generally consist of representations of the design to be protected, whereas patent applications require a detailed specification explaining how the invention works.
However, while designs do not have to be inventive, they do have to possess ‘individual character’. This means that the ‘overall impression’ conveyed by the design to an ‘informed user’ must be different from any previous designs. This aspect may be harder to overcome for a tyre tread – there are lots of tread patterns out there already, and the ‘informed user’ might not be technically minded enough to distinguish potentially subtle functional features.
Additionally, the new tyre tread design may come up against Article 8 of the Community Design Regulation which states that ‘A community design shall not subsist in features of appearance of a product which are solely dictated by its technical function.’ While the tread of the tyre does indeed have a technical effect, is its shape and appearance ‘solely dictated’ by the technical function? This will come down to whether the technical function of the tread is the only factor leading to the specific design, taking into account the particular circumstances of the design creation.
Perhaps the best strategy would be a two-pronged protection, by both registering the design of the tyre, and applying for a patent. The two rights can then complement each other – the registered design could be used to quickly obtain an enforceable right (and longer protection, lasting up to 25 years for a European Registered Community Design compared to a patent’s 20 years in most jurisdictions), while a patent, once granted, would generally provide broader protection for the technical solution.
If you would like any advice on how to protect your product or invention, or further information on either patents or registered designs, please contact one of our specialist team.
This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.