The Army of Patents: A Barrier to the Popularization of AT Cars

The transmission and engine of the N360AT, the first mini car equipped with a fully automatic transmission

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The emergence of the automatic transmission (AT) was a motivating factor in the expansion of America’s car culture during the 1960s. Since it relieved the driver of the inconvenience of operating three pedals with two feet, just about anyone could drive a car with ease. Thanks to this new technology and an ever-growing network of roads, the automobile rocketed to new heights of popularity.

Major luxury brands such as Lincoln, Cadillac, and Chrysler had moved to automatic transmissions by the late 1960s, and even the midprice models from Chevrolet and Ford were increasingly equipped with ATs. In fact, the penetration of AT cars approached the 80 percent mark.

The scene was completely different in Japan, however, where the automobile was just beginning to evolve as a part of daily life. In fact, the penetration of AT cars was still less than 10 percent. Automobiles were still quite expensive, and only a limited number of models adopted the AT system, since it tended to push prices even higher.

The relatively small displacements of domestic Japanese models also helped prevent manufacturers from developing AT products. In any car, a portion of the energy generated by the engine is lost as the drive force is transmitted to the wheels. The earlier automatic transmissions had not been very efficient, resulting in considerable losses of energy. For that reason it was considered difficult, if not impossible, to achieve sufficient dynamic performance from an engine of less than 1500 cc. Thus, while the larger, higher-displacement American models could certainly accommodate automatic transmissions, they simply weren’t practical for use in compact automobiles and mini cars. Accordingly, the typical Japanese consumer perceived the AT car as being “expensive and something that doesn’t drive well.”

Honda had only begun making automobiles during this period, so naturally there was no AT product in the pipeline. Still endeavoring to get on-track with the car business, the company didn’t have the spare resources it could divert to the development of AT models. Moreover, there was no reason to introduce AT systems. After all, Honda didn’t yet offer a passenger car model.

The tide had turned from manual transmissions to automatics in the U.S., however, so inevitably the trend would be reflected across the Pacific. Still, any car company that decided to develop an AT model would invariably hit the same wall. As was to be expected, patents were pending or in place for just about every single aspect of AT technology.

Moreover, the majority of those patents, estimated at between 40,000 and 50,000, were in the possession of the U.S. firm Borg Warner (BW). Accordingly, Japanese automobile manufacturers were soon forced to enter into partnership agreements with BW or set up joint ventures in order to avoid the liabilities of patent infringements.

Interest in AT technology was also growing at Honda, where development of the N360 mini car was under way.
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