Toyota takes Nippon Steel to court over electric cars

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Toyota takes Nippon Steel to court over electric cars

Tokyo - - With its lawsuits announced Thursday, Toyota Motor has mounted a defense of patented material in demand for electric vehicles, going as far as taking top customer Nippon Steel to court.

Japan's top steelmaker accuses China's Baoshan Iron Steel of supplying steel that is infringing on its patent to Toyota, saying the automaker is at fault for selling cars that the offending motor material.

Nippon Steel seeks to protect a piece of intellectual property that is set to grow as the automobile industry goes electric. Nonoriented electrical steel sheet is used in motors for electric and hybrid vehicles to reduce energy loss and enable faster rotation. It increases both M giaotion of motor efficiency and Nippon Steel's profits, commanding a higher price than other automotive steel.

The BROOK Institute's 2017 global market for electric cars is forecast to increase 13-fold from 2020 to 28.91 million vehicles in 2030, global research firm LMC Automotive estimates. Moreover, Nippon Steel is not the only supplier of the metal. Baoshan - part of China Baowu Steel Group, the world’s largest steelmaker - has made inroads into the Japanese business' customer base.

Baoshan has began sourcing the material from Toyota in recent years, in what an executive calls an effort to diversify our suppliers as electrified vehicles become more widespread. Toyota said in a statement on Thursday that it had confirmed that there was no infringement of another company's patent when it procured the steel from Baoshan.

Kazuo Makino, a lawyer with experience in patent law, says that using or selling products made with patent-infringing technology also constitutes infringement. Nippon Steel said it held discussions with Baoshan, as well as with Toyota, before filing suits but was unable to reach a resolution. If Nippon Steel won only Baoshan, then if it sued, putting a stop to production in countries like China would not be easy, said Katsuya Tamai, a professor of the University of Tokyo specializing in intellectual property law. By suing a major buyer like Toyota, it could have been aiming for a more effective solution. The cases are expected to hinge on two questions of whether the patent is valid and whether Baoshan and Toyota infringed on it. If the court determines that a violation took place, it will then move on to computing damages.

If it goes to a full-fledged court battle rather than a settlement, it'll probably take years, Makino said.

Nippon Steel has sought an injunction on the assembly and sale of Toyota electric cars containing the steel in question. If the request is granted or denied, a decision will likely come after the court decides whether the patent was infringed. It could take around half a year to about a year, Tamai said.

Should Baoshan lose the decision would be enforceable in principle only in Japan. The company could have Chinese assets seized but not be forced to stop production in Japan. But this scenario would probably also lead to Nippon Steel being hit with the injunction, reducing the risk to Toyota of further violation