Some of the wildest, most daring car-related innovations exist only in patent filings.
They’re inventions that are either too far-fetched, too expensive or both to put on a production model. While the odds of seeing them in showrooms are consequently relatively low, they shed light on what’s going through the minds of the men and women developing the cars of tomorrow.
Join us for a look at are some of the most unusual car-related patents granted by the United States Patent Office.
Christian von der Heyde’s rear-seat partition (1999)
Inventor Christian von der Heyde must have spent thousands of miles in the company of bickering children before inventing a rear-seat partition. He went to great lengths to ensure the partition is sturdy, easy to install and remove and thin enough not to obstruct the driver’s line of sight.
Hangoo Kang’s asymmetrical car (2011)
Researcher Hangoo Kang imagined and patented an asymmetrical car in 2011. He explained giving a car two distinctly different personalities promises to “impart imagination and vitality to automobile design.” Industry stylists seemingly disagree with his theory but there is one exception: the DS X-Tense concept unveiled in 2018 with an exterior design that illustrates Kang’s vision.
Peter Ripley’s roof-mounted wind turbine (2012)
American inventor Peter Ripley imagined a roof-mounted wind turbine that charges an electric car’s battery pack whether it’s moving or parked. Although roof-mounted solar panels are available on a handful of hybrid and electric models in 2020, Ripley’s turbine hasn’t appeared on a production car yet.
Ford’s unicycle (2014)
Years before major cities were cluttered with electric scooters, Ford imagined a system that allows drivers to park, remove one of their car’s wheels, attach it to a motorised frame, and reach their destination on a unicycle. The rider-supporting part is small enough to fit in the car’s boot.
Toyota’s shape-morphing aerocar (2014)
Numerous engineers have unsuccessfully attempted to bring flying cars to the masses. Toyota believed it might have finally cracked the code when it came up with a shape-shifting car-plane cross in 2014. On the road, it looks like a people-mover with a boxy rear end. In the air, it’s shaped like a plane’s fuselage. It’s a system that consists of flexible frame members and a tensile skin, according to Toyota.
Waymo’s sticking bonnet (2014)
Known as Waymo in 2020, Google’s Self-Driving Car Project explored several ways to make driving safer and more convenient during the 2010s. It allocated the majority of its resources to developing autonomous technology, but it also patented an adhesive, flypaper-like wrap that keeps pedestrians who get hit by a car glued to the bonnet to ensure they don’t get run over. This system consists of an outer layer that exposes the sticky inner layer when it’s broken by the initial impact.
Google’s pothole-detecting car (2015)
Google considered helping local governments fill potholes by installing shock sensors in a car’s suspension and linking them to the on-board navigation software. When the car drives over a pothole, the software records its GPS coordinates and sends the data to the relevant government agency.
Waymo’s softening car (2015)
After deciding against keeping pedestrians glued to the car they were just hit by, Waymo experimented with making body panels that immediately become softer when a collision is imminent. Its system consists of crossmembers whose tension changes to alter the vehicle’s rigidity. Presumably, the same sensors that power automatic emergency braking software trigger the tension change.
Ford’s integrated motorcycle (2016)
Perhaps loosely inspired by the 1981Honda Motocampo, Ford outlined a car whose front end hides a compartment big enough to park an electric motorcycle in. Making it fit required carving out the space under the bonnet, the dashboard and the centre console. And, although Ford made no mention of what powers the car, it undoubtedly needs to be rear-engined or fitted with in-wheel electric motors. Whether the motorcycle doubles as a crumple zone in an accident wasn’t mentioned in the patent filing.
Ford’s rolling meeting room (2016)
Ford’s vivid imagination spawned another offbeat invention in 2016. It designed a meeting room on wheels for when a limousine isn’t quite spacious (or formal) enough. It’s essentially a cylinder-shaped room with about eight seats and a table attached to what looks like a car chassis. Where the driver is positioned is unclear; Ford may have created this layout with autonomous driving in mind.
Honda’s electric-car charging arm (2016)
Honda drew inspiration from the early days of motorised public transportation to create a robotic arm that extends from an electric car and connects it to a power supply. Presented as a way to end range anxiety, it’s a solution that works – in theory, at least – because it’s widely used to power buses and trolleys around the world. Adapting it for cars would require massive infrastructure changes, however.
Honda’s X-ray vision (2016)
Still in 2016, Honda blended two existing technologies to give motorists the unprecedented ability to see what’s outside of their field of vision. Its patent describes a straight-forward system which uses the data generated by front-facing sensors to detect pedestrians in the driver’s blind spots. It then transfers this information to the head-up display (HUD), which puts it right in the driver’s line of sight.
Toyota’s telescopic rear end (2016)
Toyota experimented with a telescopic rear end that extends as the vehicle builds speed to reduce drag and improve fuel economy. It consists of an assortment of tapered shells that fold into a compartment attached to the car’s rear end when it’s not needed. It’s a solution that’s clever, if a bit unsightly.
BMW’s drone-powered car wash (2017)
BMW envisioned making the bucket and the sponge obsolete with a system that uses at least one drone to wash a car. It noted the drone (or, for bigger cars, drones) performs a 3D scan of the vehicle and uses that data to calculate a precise flight path. Each drone features a number of different modules for pre-washing, washing, waxing, checking, and even sending images to the car’s owner when the job is completed.
Ford’s in-car conveyor belt (2017)
Ford wanted to make life easier for motorists who drive a big, empty SUV by embedding a conveyor belt into the cargo compartment. Its patent filing describes a system in which part of the belt is integrated into the back part of the third-row seat. Folding the rearmost seats down spawns two horizontal belts driven by the seat adjustment mechanism, allowing users to fetch grocery bags at the push of a button.
Ford’s theatre truck (2017)
Ford also created a way to transform America’s best-selling vehicle into a movie theatre. In a 2017 patent, it described a way to install a screen, a projector and speakers in the back of a pickup truck. It’s a relatively straight-forward system in which the entertainment system is mounted to crossmembers.
Toyota’s fragrance/tear gas dispenser (2017)
Toyota invented a system that dispenses fragrance in a car’s interior, which is hardly unusual. Many luxury cars (including some made by Mercedes-Benz) are equipped with this feature. What’s odd here is that the company noted its technology can also be configured to spray tear gas if the car is stolen.
Toyota’s invisible roof pillars (2017)
Toyota’s invisible roof pillars sound like they came straight out of Hogwarts. In a 2017 patent filing, the Japanese carmaker described a cloaking device that relies on a series of strategically-located mirrors that bounce light off each other to let the driver see through a car’s windshield pillars.
Seven of Harley-Davidson’s engineers fine-tuned a system that allows a motorcycle to balance itself. Described as a gyroscopic rider assist device, it takes the form of a rotating flywheel spun at anywhere between 10,000 and 40,000rpm by an electric motor. It’s housed in the bike’s top luggage case.
Porsche’s electric plane (2020)
Patents filed in early 2020 suggest Porsche is serious about entering the flying taxi segment. It outlined an electric, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft equipped with advanced cooling system that ensures the battery doesn’t overheat. Although it’s too early to tell when (or if) we’ll see Porsche’s invention hover over a city, the company is currently working with Boeing to bring its aircraft to production.