Kenedict Innovation Analytics

Mapping Tesla’s Influence on the Automotive Industry and Beyond: An Interactive Analysis

Tesla has been making headlines recently with the introduction of the Model 3, its most affordable car to date which is set to be released next year. The company has always been a frontrunner in electric vehicle innovation, and is often the first to introduce new features to the market. How has Tesla influenced other automotive companies over the years, and how does its technology link to other industry sectors? Let’s dive into its patents to find out.

Tesla's Influence Map based on three generations of patent citations

Tesla’s Influence Map based on three generations of patent citations (click to enlarge)

Written by André Vermeij, Kenedict Innovation Analytics

Judging from the staggering amount of pre-orders received (reaching 400,000 at the time of writing of this article), the Model 3 can already be dubbed a success more than 18 months before it hits the market. It marks Tesla’s move into the high-volume, low-price segment, setting the stage for a wider availability of highway-capable electric vehicles. Of course, other car manufacturers haven’t exactly been sitting still either: many of them already have vehicles on the road and are investing in technology to further push electric driving forward as well. Still, Tesla was the first to have a highway-capable electric vehicle in mass production in recent times. In how far has Tesla then influenced the rest of the industry?

Tesla’s open source patents

In a bold move about two years ago, Tesla CEO Elon Musk open-sourced the company’s patents to allow others to use its technology and thereby stimulate the further advancement of electric vehicle technology. According to the press release (see here), this basically means that Tesla will not sue anyone wishing to use its technology ‘in good faith’. Currently, Tesla has 238 published patent families (groups of patents relating to the same invention, applied for across multiple countries/jurisdictions) attached to its name. Usually, companies which want to use a technology described in another company’s patent will need to obtain a license in order not to infringe the existing patent and avoid a costly lawsuit. Tesla thus seems to take on a slightly more flexible approach here – although some sort of agreement will probably still be necessary in most cases.

Patent citations

Just like scientific articles cite each other, patents do so as well. Citations can be added to a patent by the company applying for a patent during the application process, or by a patent examiner at a patent office. Two types of citations exist: a backward citation is a patent that is cited by a focal patent, while a forward citation is a patent that cites a focal patent. For example, if Toyota cites a Tesla patent, this is a backward citation of the Toyota patent and a forward citation of the Tesla patent.

When document A cites document B, we draw a directed line between these two documents based on their citation relationship. Document A is a forward citation of document B; and vice versa, document B is a backward citation of document A.

When document A cites document B, we draw a directed line between these two documents based on their citation relationship. Document A is a forward citation of document B; and vice versa, document B is a backward citation of document A.

Knowing this, we could say that the influence of Tesla’s technology can be measured through the forward citations which the company’s patents have received over the years. Regardless of the move to open source, Tesla’s patents are still being cited frequently by a wide variety of companies within the automotive industry and beyond. Similarly, the companies which cite Tesla are being cited by other companies as well. When looking at multiple ‘generations’ of patent citations, we can then obtain a unique look on the direct and indirect impact which Tesla’s technology has had over the years.

Visualizing citation generations

To get a view on Tesla’s influence, let’s start off by collecting the data with respect to the 238 currently published patent families by Tesla (or better, Tesla Motors Inc., as its listed on patent frontpages). Inspection of their forward citations shows that at least 982 other patents cited them. It’s possible to visualize these citations and their interrelations in a so-called directed network, where each node corresponds with a patent and each connection depicts a citation relation. The initial citation network based on first-generation forward citations then looks like this (only the largest interconnected component is visualized):

The larger a node, the more often it is cited (or in network parlor, the higher its in-degree). Colors depict clusters of patents and are assigned based on the proximity and interconnectedness between patents to each other in the network. Patents with the same color can thus be expected to be in similar technology areas. For instance, the cyan cluster at the right mostly consists of technology related to vehicle structure and shielding. All nodes occupying central positions within their clusters are thus Tesla patents, with the patents that cite them located around them. You can pan and zoom around the visual and click nodes to see which companies are responsible for them.

Since we’re only looking at one generation of citations so far, it’s not useful yet to map out the interconnections between companies here – the only connections would then be between Tesla and the companies that cited it, without seeing interconnectivity between these companies yet. Instead, here’s an overview of the top 10 companies which cited Tesla:

Number of citations
General Motors Co.84
Robert Bosch GmbH67
Toyota Motor Co.53
Ford Motor Co.45
Hyundai Motor Co.39
Audi AG37
Samsung SDI Co.34
Denso Corp.25
Misson Motor Co.25
Panasonic Corp.22

Table: Top 10 companies citing Tesla patents

The list includes various large auto manufacturers, as well as Tesla’s battery supplier Panasonic and past partner Toyota (Toyota’s RAV4 EV was developed jointly with Tesla). Bosch and Samsung SDI also cite Tesla frequently – these two companies had a 50/50 joint venture called SB LiMotive which focused on automotive lithium-ion batteries until 2012, and have since pursued their own activities in this space.

Adding further generations

Let’s add two further generations of forward citations to also be able to see the connections between the companies that cited Tesla. At the same time, we’ll get to see which companies are indirectly influenced by Tesla’s technology. These companies did not necessarily cite Tesla, but they did cite patents belonging to companies which have a direct citation relationship with Tesla.

The above map is filtered to only show companies with 3 or more patents in the dataset, linked when they cited each other at least 3 times. Again, nodes are sized based on their in-degree – or more specifically in this example, the number of companies citing them in the dataset. Clicking a company node shows you its direct connections to other companies and allows you to find out which of the companies have a direct citation relationship with Tesla. The same clustering principles have been applied here – nodes are assigned the same colors when they are highly interconnected.

Interpreting the influence map

The main cluster of interconnected companies consists of the companies closest to Tesla as measured by citation activity. Toyota plays an important role here, having been cited by 56 other companies on the map. Although the partnership between Tesla and Toyota halted for now, Elon Musk did indicate that some form of other partnership may be possible in the next few years (see here). Other large car manufacturers with significant citation activity are Ford, Honda and Hitachi.

Just above the Tesla/Toyota cluster, we see high interconnectivity between General Motors, BMW, Daimler and Chrysler (now called FCA US). Some digging shows that these manufacturers actually collaborated in the Global Hybrid Cooperation to jointly develop a set of hybrid vehicle technologies. The cooperation has been dissolved now, but the patents that resulted from it regularly cited Tesla patents. We also see battery manufacturers Samsung SDI, Bosch, LG Chemical and Matsushita (Panasonic) in this cluster, indicating the reliance of these companies on each others’ technology in terms of citations.

The yellow cluster at the bottom is pretty interesting: it includes mainly high-tech and consumer electronics companies, including activity by Apple, Qualcomm, TomTom and Sony. A quick look at Apple’s patents in the dataset shows that they mostly focus on device battery management, user interfaces and vehicle navigation – indeed, three key aspects of Tesla’s electric vehicles. Logically, navigation specialist TomTom is then located not too far from Apple here.

Finally, the red cluster at the left shows activity by the likes of General Electric, Siemens, IBM and GridPoint (a cleantech company focusing on energy management). Many of GE’s patents, for instance, relate directly to energy management and charging in vehicles, as well a wide variety of other appliances and devices.

Citation Maps for improved insights

The above shows that the citation data on patent documents can provide valuable insights through the possibility to visualize interconnectivity between patent documents on the one hand, and the organizations responsible for them on the other hand. Compared to ‘regular’ patent searches which focus on keywords, technology codes or applicant portfolios, citation-based searches can reveal key activity which might at first sight be quite hidden. This can be very valuable when aiming to find new partners or potential acquisition targets.

Next to focusing on forward citations (‘which companies cited Tesla?’), it’s also possible to focus analyses on backward citations (‘which companies were cited by Tesla?’). Instead of mapping influence, we would then be mapping Tesla’s reliance on others’ technologies. In even broader analyses, it is possible to take a number of important patents in a specific sector and iteratively go through multiple generations of their backward citations to get a strong view on the actual technology history underlying that sector.

Tesla is still at the forefront of electric vehicle innovation, and has influenced a variety of industries with its technology. Let’s hope its move to ‘open source’ patents will pave the way for innovation by other market players in the years to come.

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