Alex Severinsky is a Soviet engineer and immigrant to the United States who once developed antitank-warfare instrumentation. In 1994, he patented a system for powering gas-electric hybrid automobiles. Toyota has been using his system since 1997 without permission or payment.
Toyota Motor has settled a patent-infringement case that has dragged on for six years. The settlement, announced Monday, came the same day the U.S. International Trade Commission was to launch a hearing on Severinsky’s claims. Had the commission sided with the engineer, it could have barred Toyota from importing the Prius and other hybrids.
No one’s discussing the settlement, but Toyota insists it developed its Synergy Drive hybrid system independently of any work Severinsky had done. Severinsky, of course, sees things a bit differently.
This is his story.
“We [were] met by a high degree of cynicism from the automakers.” — Severinsky, to Auto Field Guide, on the industry reception to his technology in the pre-Prius era.
Severinsky, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland, earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Kharkov College of Radioelectronics, in Kharkov, Ukraine, in 1967. Eight years later, he earned a doctorate in the same field from Moscow’s Institute for Precision Measurements in Radioelectronics and Physics. He emigrated, as a refugee, to the United States in 1978.
Alex J. Severinsky Photo: University of Maryland
Predictably, Severinsky’s interest in hybrid tech grew out of computing.
In the 1980s, Severinsky spent a great deal of time working on uninterruptible power supplies for computer systems. Patents for gasoline-electric vehicle technology had been awarded before, but the seamless management of drive torque — the subtle transition that makes a hybrid feel like a normal car and not an on-off switch — had long been limited by computing power and component costs.
After years of inquiry, and encouraged by the evolution of high-voltage power semiconductors (needed, as the Innovation Hall of Fame notes, to deliver “satisfactory energy efficiency and power for acceleration”), Severinsky founded Power Assisted Internal Combustion Engines in 1992.
On September 6, 1994, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Severinsky a patent for his high-voltage method of powering gas-electric hybrid vehicles. He called it “Hyperdrive.” The filing followed years of work and research, and it represented an early version of the thinking that led to the drivetrain in most modern hybrid electric vehicles.
Inexpensive semiconductors, which became available in the late 1990s, allowed Severinsky to build a working vehicle prototype. In October, 1999, he demonstrated his technology in a Cadillac Coupe de Ville and pursued licensing agreements from automakers.
Make no mistake: Toyota is a juggernaut. It has experienced some setbacks lately, but it dominates the market for consumer hybrid vehicles. It also protects its technology aggressively. According to an Australian study, Toyota has sought more than 4000 patents related to hybrid technology in the United States. That’s roughly 43 percent of all hybrid vehicle patents filed. More than 1,000 were claimed on the 2009 Prius alone.
Given the relatively narrow window provided by government regulations and public demand, many prominent manufacturers — Ford, for example — have opted to license Toyota’s technology rather than develop their own. It is simply cheaper and faster than going it alone. (Though Ford did develop the system in the 2010 Fusion Hybrid.)
It must be said that Severinsky’s patents are not for hybrid cars or hybrid systems in their entirety. Hybrid automobiles have been around almost as long as automobiles. Ferdinand Porsche built one in 1898, for example. Severinsky’s patents focus on a problem of implementation: The method by which torque from an electric motor is seamlessly blended with that of a gasoline engine. In a nutshell, his company owns the notion of back-and-forth cooperative management of an internal-combustion engine and an electric motor.
Put another way, he developed the digital integration of countless variables — engine speed, road speed, throttle position and air density, to name a few — that dictate how the electric and gasoline components interact moment to moment. The relevant patents can be found on Google:
U.S. Patent No. 5,343,970
U.S. Patent No. 7,104,347
U.S. Patent No. 7,237,634
Toyota says it developed Synergy Drive independently of any work Severinsky might have done.
Severinsky took his claims to court, launching a six-year legal battle that ended Monday. Although the Prius contains technology that infringes upon Severinsky’s 1994 patent, Toyota maintained that its vehicles were the result of its own research and Synergy Drive was invented independently of any work Severinsky might have done.
The courtroom fight is best chronicled by the following timeline from Paice’s website. Yes, we fact-checked it. It reads like a court docket, so you’ll be forgiven for skimming it.
- June 8, 2004: Paice files suit against Toyota in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, claiming infringement of its hybrid vehicle technology patents.
- December 20, 2005: A jury says Toyota’s hybrids infringe two claims of patent 5,343,970. It awards Paice past damages of $4,269,950 based on U.S. sales of the Prius, Highlander and Lexus RX400h hybrids between June 2004 and November 2005. Toyota asks a judge to set aside the finding or grant a new trial.
- August 16, 2006: A federal judge rejects Toyota’s request and orders the company to pay Paice $25 for every Prius II, Highlander Hybrid and Lexus RX400h hybrid it builds for the life of patent 5,343,970.
- August 31, 2006: Toyota appeals the judgement. Paice asks the court to reconsider the $25 royalty, feeling it was too low.
- September 12, 2006: Paice is awarded U.S. Patent No. 7,104,347.
- May 8, 2007: Paice files a second lawsuit, alleging Toyota is willfully infringing patent 5,343,970. with regard to hybrids sold since the 2005 trial. (Specifically, the Camry, Lexus RX450h and Lexus HS 250h hybrids and the third-gen Prius.)
- July 3, 2007: Paice is awarded U.S. Patent No. 7,237,634 and amends its suit to claim Toyota is infringing on this patent.
- October 18, 2007: An appeals court rejects Toyota’s challenge to the 2005 jury verdict.
- April 17, 2009: A federal court determines a formula for computing royalties paid to Paice. It amounts to $98 per hybrid vehicle based on current vehicle prices.
- April 21, 2009: The U.S. Supreme Court denies Toyota’s petition seeking review of the liability finding on patent 5,343,970.
- May 15, 2009: Toyota appeals the ruling regarding ongoing royalties.
- September 3, 2009: Paice files a complaint with the International Trade Commission, alleging infringement of patent 5,343,970 by some Toyota models sold since the final judgment of the first suit in 2006.
- September 25, 2009: In the second lawsuit, the court stays the damages portion of the case with respect to Paice’s three hybrid patents pending the ITC investigation into infringement of patent 5,343,970.
- October 5, 2009: The trade commission votes to investigate whether Toyota infringes upon patent 5,343,970.
The Lexus RX400h was among the hybrids Toyota was ordered to pay royalties on.
Paice announced on July 15 that it had reached an agreement with Ford — which licenses Toyota’s hybrid technology — to license Severinsky’s patent 5,343,970. The deal came four days before the trade commission was to investigate Paice’s infrigement claims against Toyota, an inquiry that could have resulted in barring Toyota from importing the Prius and other vehicles.
On Monday, Toyota agreed to settle the dispute. By doing so, it agreed to the dismissal of all pending lawsuits and appeals, effectively bringing the entire saga to a close. The terms were not disclosed, but Toyota and Paice, in separate statements, said:
The parties agree that, although certain Toyota vehicles have been found to be equivalent to a Paice patent, Toyota invented, designed and developed the Prius and Toyota’s hybrid technology independent of any inventions of Dr. Severinsky and Paice as part of Toyota’s long history of innovation.
Silverinsky, who left Paice in August, 2006, to become the CEO of a company exploring synthetic fuel, was more direct in his comments to Business Week.
“Finally people understand the merits of what I invented and give it the proper value,” he said. “Toyota is the leading technology company and finally appreciates the value of the invention.”
This story was written by Sam Smith and originally published by Jalopnik on July 21.