In May of 2019, Tesla filed a patent application for “Pulsed Laser Cleaning of Debris Accumulated on Glass Articles in Vehicles and Photovoltaic Assemblies.” Instead of using conventional windshield wipers, Tesla envisioned a system to clean debris from any glass on a vehicle. The laser cleaning system can be used to clean windshields, side and rear windows, and camera lenses used for Tesla’s advanced driver-assistance systems. The Tesla laser patent application also considers using the technology to clean debris from photovoltaic solar panels. Figure 2B in Tesla’s laser patent application illustrates lasers mounted on the exterior of one of Tesla’s electric cars. The debris cleaning laser system uses cameras to optically detect debris on a glass surface and then uses a laser to irradiate the debris until the glass surface is clean. Because a laser beam penetrating through glass may damage the interior of the vehicle or harm people within the vehicle, the patent application contemplates two solutions to ensure the lasers will not be harmful. First, the patent application describes pulsing the laser at a calibrated rate to prevent the laser beam from penetrating the glass. Second, the patent application considers coating the glass with a compound such as indium tin oxide to further reduce the possibility of the laser penetrating through the glass.
Apart from filing a patent application, it is unclear what Tesla has planned for the debris-cleaning laser system. While it is possible to use a laser system to clean glass surfaces on a car, it may be impractical until new developments help to reduce the cost and energy consumption of such a system. However, Tesla certainly sees value in the concept as it has invested in employing patent attorneys to obtain patent protection on the idea. Even if Tesla has no intention of developing the laser system to clean glass surfaces on a car or photovoltaic solar panels, obtaining patent protection will give Tesla the option to enforce the patent against potential competitors by engaging in patent litigation. Also, obtaining patent protection will give Tesla leverage in negotiating for royalties from other manufacturers that desire to use the patented technology.
Steps to Obtain a Patent
Filing a patent application first requires an invention. An invention includes both (1) conception and (2) reduction to practice. Conception is the formation, in the mind of the inventor, of a definite and permanent idea of a complete and operative invention. Solvay S.A. v. Honeywell International, 742 F.3d 998, 1000 (2014). Reduction to practice requires that the claimed invention work for its intended purpose. Solvay S.A. v. Honeywell International, 742 F.3d 998, 1000 (2014). Reduction to practice can be satisfied by building a working prototype, performing the process of the invention, or by filing a patent application conveying sufficient information to enable those of ordinary skill in the art to make and use the invention.
A patent application must clearly explain an invention in sufficient detail to enable one of ordinary skill in the art to make and use the invention. Because of this, patent attorneys typically need to gather information from the inventors, which may include a combination of written information, sketches, and discussions with the inventors. Once a patent attorney has a sufficient understanding of the invention, he or she might perform a prior art search to determine what has already been done and to increase confidence that nobody else had previously invented the idea sought to be patented (e.g., using lasers to remove debris on glass). Next, the patent attorney would draft a patent application including formal drawings illustrating the invention and a detailed description to explain the drawings and further explain the invention.
Often, patent attorneys will try to protect an invention by filing a provisional patent application, as Tesla did here. Similar to a non-provisional or utility application, a provisional application must clearly explain the invention in sufficient detail to enable one of ordinary skill in the art to make and use the invention. However, provisional patent applications have a few key differences. For example. Provisional applications are not required to have any patent claims, will not be examined by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and will only be published if converted to a full utility patent application within one year of filing the provisional patent application. One of the primary reasons for filing a provisional patent application is to secure an early effective filing date. The effective filing date of a patent application will define the scope of what constitutes prior art and should prevent others from subsequently obtaining a patent for the same invention.
After a provisional patent application has been filed, if the owner of the provisional patent application determines that the invention has sufficient value, the owner may instruct a patent attorney to convert the provisional patent application to a full utility patent application within 12 months of the provisional filing. This will enable any claims in the utility patent to obtain the effective filing date of any subject matter that was included in the original provisional patent application.
Next, the utility patent application will publish 18 months after the filing date of the provisional patent application. The USPTO employs examiners to review the application to ensure the same invention is new, useful, and not obvious over prior known art (e.g., is not patented twice). Often this stage involves some back-and-forth between the USPTO and the patent attorney to determine the proper claim scope, which defines the meets and bounds of exactly what the patent protects. Once the examiner at the USPTO agrees that the patent application claims an invention that is new, useful, and not obvious, the patent application will be assigned a patent number and issue as a patent.
Current Status and Future of Tesla’s Idea
As of July 15, 2020, Tesla has a published patent application that is still under examination at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Since patent applications themselves do not confer rights on the applicant, Tesla currently does not have any rights regarding the debris cleaning laser system. However, because the application has published, the publication itself should preclude others from obtaining a patent on substantially the same subject matter. Furthermore, the patent publication provides notice to the public that Tesla has a “patent-pending,” and may soon have an issued patent, which may deter others from making and using the claimed invention. If or when Tesla obtains an issued patent, Tesla will have the right to exclude others from making, using, offering to sell, selling the claimed invention within the United States, or importing the claimed invention into the United States, as set forth in 35 U.S.C. § 271 (2018).
When it comes to Tesla’s laser system or any patentable idea, it is critical to consult a patent attorney as soon as possible. First, a patent attorney will be able to provide insight as to whether the invention is patentable. Second, if the invention is possibly patentable, a patent attorney will be best situated to determine how to obtain patent protection. Third, a patent attorney will be able to assist inventors and associated parties in navigating the confidentiality obligations that accompany filing a patent application. Fourth, a patent attorney can be commissioned to efficiently draft and file a patent application to obtain an effective filing date. Finally, consulting with a patent attorney may be valuable to ensure that a business entity has adequate patent protection and an effective overall intellectual property strategy.