To be sure, not all user innovations end up in the marketplace
right away. Just ask Felix Kramer, founder of the Palo Alto-based
California Cars Initiative, a nonprofit whose mission is to bring
plug-in hybrid vehicles to the market.
Kramer and other Calcars volunteers rigged a 2004 Toyota Prius with
a battery pack so that it can be plugged into a 120-volt outlet and
then operated on the resulting charge. "It's as if you added
another small fuel tank to the car," Kramer says. That modification
boosts the overall miles per gallon of gas of the Prius past 100.
But Kramer isn't interested in manufacturing plug-in hybrids. "Our
whole goal is to get the car companies to do this; we promote
awareness and enthusiasm," he notes.
However, given today's technology, the price tag for a plug-in
battery system retrofilled on a Prius would hit about $10,000, says
Dave Hermance, executive engineer at Toyota. "Plug-ins are an
interesting concept, but they don't today offer a good value to
That doesn't mean Toyota doesn't gain anything from Kramer's work.
"It will still benefit by learning how many users pick up the
idea," says von Hippel. If the number grows large enough, Toyota
may decide it makes sense to pursue the concept.
TOYOTA'S RESPONSE TO Calcar's invention isn't unusual. Many
companies are leery of working directly with users, if only because
of the legal issues to consider.
Most companies go to great steps to avoid putting themselves in a
position in which they could be accused of stealing someone's
invention. That's why many prohibit their product-development
employees from even looking at ideas submitted by individuals
outside their companies.