Land Rover was among the first automakers to forge a path in the highly profitable market for luxury sport utility vehicles, simplifying the technology for affluent but inexperienced off-road drivers.
But the foreign-made rivals in the British company’s rearview mirror have grown closer than they might appear.
On Thursday, Jaguar Land Rover Automotive Plc asked a U.S. trade agency to block imports of Volkswagen Group’s Porsche, Lamborghini, Audi and Volkswagen SUVs it says are using its patented Terrain Response system without permission.
Jaguar Land Rover, which is owned by India’s Tata Motors Ltd., said in a filing with the U.S. International Trade Commission that the technology helps negotiate a “broad range of surfaces” and is a key feature in Jaguar’s F-Pace and Land Rover Discovery vehicles.
“JLR seeks to protect itself and its United States operations from companies that have injected infringing products into the U.S. market that incorporate, without any license from JLR, technology developed by JLR and protected by its patent,” Land Rover’s lawyer, Matthew Moore of Latham & Watkins, said in the filing.
A spokesman for Volkswagen declined to comment on ongoing litigation.
Super-luxury automakers began moving into the SUV market about five years ago. JLR’s Land Rover division, the original maker of rugged all-terrain vehicles, is seeking to fend off competition as other carmakers push into the space, including the upscale Bentayga from Volkswagen’s Bentley nameplate and the Levante built by Italy’s Maserati.
Land Rover wants to block imports of Porsche’s Cayenne; Lamborghini’s Urus; Audi’s Q8, Q7, Q5, A6 Allroad and e-tron vehicles; and VW’s Tiguan vehicles. It said there are plenty of other luxury midsize SUV and compact crossover vehicles to meet consumer demand if the SUVs are banned from the U.S.
Still, the premium Porsche and Audi lines provide much of the profit VW is using to fund its investments in technology for electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles and further innovations.
Land Rover’s award-winning Terrain Response feature uses a single button to adjust all of a vehicle’s subsystems for off-road driving. For instance, the driver pushes Sand, Rock Crawl, or Mud and Ruts, and the vehicle automatically adjusts the engine, braking, transmission and other systems to optimize the vehicle’s performance.
The company considers the ability to turn an average driver into an off-road specialist a key feature in Land Rover’s success as a premium brand. Volkswagen Group clearly sees the advantages. The Lamborghini Urus shares a platform with the Bentley Bentayga and Audi Q8, leveraging the group’s global scale and production.
Land Rover sued Bentley in 2018 after the introduction of the Bentayga, which can cost more than $200,000 and offers a Drive Dynamics system that Land Rover says copies Terrain Response. Bentley sought to invalidate the Land Rover patents both in the district court and before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s review board, without luck. A trial is scheduled for February.
High Net Worth Individuals
The makers of the world’s most expensive cars have increasingly turned to SUVs as they seek to boost their appeal in China and emerging markets, where rough roads make a posh SUV an appealing alternative to a sports car.
“An increased number of high net worth individuals (HNWI), who tend to be immune to short-term economic shocks, will assist this trend,” Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Michael Dean wrote in an Oct. 6 note, “with Chinese HNWI favoring chauffeured four-door luxury vehicles.”
Aston Martin in July announced that it had launched production of its DBX series, which Dean called “vital to the brand’s survival.” A Ferrari SUV is due in 2022.
The International Trade Commission is an independent, quasi-judicial U.S. agency that investigates complaints of unfair trade practices, like patent infringement. It can’t award damages but does have the power to block products from entering the U.S. Owners of patents and trade secrets like it because it can work faster than the federal district courts — the typical investigation is completed in 15 to 18 months.
But Jaguar also filed patent lawsuits against the VW companies in federal courts in Delaware and New Jersey on Thursday, seeking cash compensation for the use of the technology. Those cases are likely to be put on hold once the trade commission launches its investigation.
The case is In the Matter of Certain Vehicle Control Systems, 337-3508, U.S. International Trade Commission (Washington).