That may not sound like a great engineering insight that revolutionizes transportation in America. But it might be the start of something.
General Motors has filed a patent application with an incredibly simple idea, but one that is illustrative of the way cars are changing.
It’s an EV with two plugs.
Lasers, Conveyor Belts, and Tear Gas: Car Companies and Their Patents
First, a quick note on patents: Automakers are some of the most aggressive users of America’s patent system. They routinely file for patents they may never use.
Tesla, not kidding you here, holds a patent for a laser windshield cleaning system. Toyota holds a patent for an in-car fragrance system that can also dispense tear gas for self-defense. Ford holds a patent for a conveyer belt that brings items from the trunk to the front seat.
Even companies that only think about building cars hold patents for them. Google holds a patent for a hood sticky enough to immobilize a human being. It’s meant as a safety device – if you hit a pedestrian with your car, they’d stick to the hood instead of bouncing off and getting a second set of injuries from hitting the road. But imagine washing it after a drive through Louisiana in bug season.
An idea doesn’t have to be good to earn a patent. It just has to be novel. And carmakers routinely patent ideas they never execute.
GM’s Batteries are Already Two Batteries
GM’s new generation of electric cars, like the GMC Hummer and Cadillac Lyriq, is built on a platform the automaker calls Ultium. Ultium is a single, skateboard-like unit of batteries, motors, and suspension that fits beneath a car’s cabin.
Engineers can scale it up or down to build vehicles as large as the Chevy Silverado EV and as small as (probably even smaller than) the Chevy Blazer EV. The design will underlay an entire generation of GM vehicles. It’s successful enough that even Honda plans to use it for its first dedicated EV, the upcoming Honda Prologue.
The way GM scales the battery up for larger vehicles is, essentially, to wire two of them together. The Hummer and Silverado both use a two-layer battery. So why not charge them separately?
Some electric vehicles (EVs), such as Tesla products, use a 400-volt architecture. Some, like the Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Kia EV6, use an 800-volt setup. Electrical charging is complicated and not as simple as 800-volt batteries charging twice as fast as 400-volt batteries. But the 800-volt systems currently on the market do charge faster than 400-volt EVs.
What would be even faster? Using both.
GM’s patent would let users charge the entire battery from one 800-volt port, the entire battery from one 400-volt port, or half of it from one of each. The ports are bi-directional, so they could also be used to power other EVs or equipment in the field.
Electrical Engineers Are the New Garage Tinkerers
The patent may never become a working system. Many automaker patents never do. This could be just another drawing of a sticky hood.
But it illustrates something new about the car market.
Engineers learned to tease as much performance as possible from the internal combustion engine through a century of tinkering and trying wacky things with fire.
A pair of charging cords (and a driver using two charging stations at once while cars line up for their turn) may not be the innovation that makes EVs easier for Americans to live with day-to-day. But electrical engineers are the new creative thinkers who will reshape what our cars cost and do for us.