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In car engines without computer-controlled throttles, the accelerator pedal interacts with the throttle via cable or other mechanical link. The pedal arm acts as a lever rotating around a pivot point. In a cable-actuated throttle control the rotation caused by pushing down the pedal pulls a cable, which in turn pulls open valves in the carburetor or fuel injection unit. The wider the valves open, the more fuel and air are released, causing combustion to increase and the car to accelerate. When the driver takes his foot off the pedal, the opposite occurs as the cable is released and the valves slide closed.

In the 1990’s it became more common to install computers in cars to control engine operation. Computer-controlled throttles open and close valves in response to electronic signals, not through force transferred from the pedal by a mechanical link. Constant, delicate adjustments of air and fuel mixture are possible. The computer’s rapid processing of factors beyond the pedal’s position improves fuel efficiency and engine performance.

For a computer-controlled throttle to respond to a driver’s operation of the car, the computer must know what is happening with the pedal. A cable or mechanical link does not suffice for this purpose; at some point, an electronic sensor is necessary to translate the mechanical operation into digital data the computer can understand.

Before discussing sensors further we turn to the mechanical design of the pedal itself. In the traditional design a pedal can be pushed down or released but cannot have its position in the foot well adjusted by sliding the pedal forward or back. As a result, a driver who wishes tobe closer or farther from the pedal must either reposition himself in the driver’s seat or move the seat in some way. In cars with deep foot wells these are imperfect solutions for drivers of smaller stature. To solve the problem, in-ventors, beginning in the 1970’s, designed pedals that could be adjusted to change their location in the foot well. Important for this case are two adjustable pedals disclosed in U. S. Patent Nos. 5,010,782 (filed July 28, 1989) (Asano) and 5,460,061 (filed Sept. 17, 1993) (Redding). The Asano patent reveals a support structure that houses the pedal so that even when the pedal location is adjusted relative to the driver, one of the pedal’s pivot points stays fixed. The pedal is also designed so that the force necessary to push the pedal down is the same regardless of adjustments to its location. The Redding patent reveals a different, sliding mechanism where both the pedal and the pivot point are adjusted.

We return to sensors. Well before Engelgau applied for his challenged patent, some inventors had obtained patents involving electronic pedal sensors for computer-controlled throttles. These inventions, such as the device disclosed in U. S. Patent No. 5,241,936 (filed Sept. 9, 1991) (’936), taught that it was preferable to detect the pedal’s position in the pedal assembly, not in the engine. The ’936 patent disclosed a pedal with an electronic sensor on a pivot point in the pedal assembly. U. S. Patent No. 5,063,811 (filed July 9, 1990) (Smith) taught that to pre-vent the wires connecting the sensor to the computer from chafing and wearing out, and to avoid grime and damage from the driver’s foot, the sensor should be put on a fixed part of the pedal assembly rather than in or on the pedal’s footpad.

In addition to patents for pedals with integrated sensors inventors obtained patents for self-contained modular sensors. A modular sensor is designed independently of a given pedal so that it can be taken off the shelf and at-tached to mechanical pedals of various sorts, enabling the pedals to be used in automobiles with computer-controlled throttles. One such sensor was disclosed in U. S. Patent No. 5,385,068 (filed Dec. 18, 1992) (’068). In 1994, Chevrolet manufactured a line of trucks using modular sensors “attached to the pedal support bracket, adjacent to the pedal and engaged with the pivot shaft about which the pedal rotates in operation.” 298 F. Supp. 2d 581, 589 (ED Mich. 2003).

The prior art contained patents involving the placement of sensors on adjustable pedals as well. For example, U. S. Patent No. 5,819,593 (filed Aug. 17, 1995) (Rixon) dis-closes an adjustable pedal assembly with an electronic sensor for detecting the pedal’s position. In the Rixon pedal the sensor is located in the pedal footpad. The Rixon pedal was known to suffer from wire chafing when the pedal was depressed and released.

This short account of pedal and sensor technology leads to the instant case.

KSR, a Canadian company, manufactures and supplies auto parts, including pedal systems. Ford Motor Company hired KSR in 1998 to supply an adjustable pedal system for various lines of automobiles with cable-actuated throttle controls. KSR developed an adjustable mechanical pedal for Ford and obtained U. S. Patent No. 6,151,976(filed July 16, 1999) (’976) for the design. In 2000, KSR was chosen by General Motors Corporation (GMC or GM) to supply adjustable pedal systems for Chevrolet and GMC light trucks that used engines with computer-controlled throttles. To make the ’976 pedal compatible with the
6 KSR INT’L CO. v. TELEFLEX INC. trucks, KSR merely took that design and added a modular sensor.

Teleflex is a rival to KSR in the design and manufacture of adjustable pedals. As noted, it is the exclusive licensee of the Engelgau patent. Engelgau filed the patent application on August 22, 2000 as a continuation of a previous application for U. S. Patent No. 6,109,241, which was filed on January 26, 1999. He has sworn he invented the pat-ent’s subject matter on February 14, 1998. The Engelgau patent discloses an adjustable electronic pedal described in the specification as a “simplified vehicle control pedal assembly that is less expensive, and which uses fewer parts and is easier to package within the vehicle.” Engelgau, col. 2, lines 2–5, Supplemental App. 6. Claim 4 of the patent, at issue here, describes:

“A vehicle control pedal apparatus comprising: a support adapted to be mounted to a vehicle structure;

an adjustable pedal assembly having a pedal arm moveable in for[e] and aft directions with respect tosaid support;

a pivot for pivotally supporting said adjustable pedal assembly with respect to said support and defining a pivot axis; and

an electronic control attached to said support for con-trolling a vehicle system;

said apparatus characterized by said electronic control being responsive to said pivot for providing a signal that corresponds to pedal arm position as said pedal arm pivots about said pivot axis between rest and applied positions wherein the position of said pivot re-mains constant while said pedal arm moves in fore and aft directions with respect to said pivot.” Id., col.6, lines 17–36, Supplemental App. 8 (diagram numbers omitted).

We agree with the District Court that the claim discloses “a position-adjustable pedal assembly with an electronic pedal position sensor attached to the support member of the pedal assembly. Attaching the sensor to the support member allows the sensor to remain in a fixed position while the driver adjusts the pedal.” 298 F. Supp. 2d, at 586–587.

Before issuing the Engelgau patent the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) rejected one of the patent claims that was similar to, but broader than, the present claim 4. The claim did not include the requirement that the sensor be placed on a fixed pivot point. The PTO concluded the claim was an obvious combination of the prior art disclosed in Redding and Smith, explaining:

“‘Since the prior ar[t] references are from the field of endeavor, the purpose disclosed . . . would have been recognized in the pertinent art of Redding. Therefore it would have been obvious . . . to provide the device of Redding with the . . . means attached to a support member as taught by Smith.’” Id., at 595.

In other words Redding provided an example of an adjust-able pedal and Smith explained how to mount a sensor ona pedal’s support structure, and the rejected patent claim merely put these two teachings together.

Although the broader claim was rejected, claim 4 was later allowed because it included the limitation of a fixed pivot point, which distinguished the design from Red-ding’s. Ibid. Engelgau had not included Asano among the prior art references, and Asano was not mentioned in the patent’s prosecution. Thus, the PTO did not have before it an adjustable pedal with a fixed pivot point. The patent issued on May 29, 2001 and was assigned to Teleflex.

Upon learning of KSR’s design for GM, Teleflex sent a warning letter informing KSR that its proposal would violate the Engelgau patent. “‘Teleflex believes that any supplier of a product that combines an adjustable pedal with an electronic throttle control necessarily employs technology covered by one or more’” of Teleflex’s patents. Id., at 585. KSR refused to enter a royalty arrangement with Teleflex; so Teleflex sued for infringement, asserting KSR’s pedal infringed the Engelgau patent and two other patents. Ibid. Teleflex later abandoned its claims regard-ing the other patents and dedicated the patents to the public. The remaining contention was that KSR’s pedal system for GM infringed claim 4 of the Engelgau patent. Teleflex has not argued that the other three claims of the patent are infringed by KSR’s pedal, nor has Teleflex argued that the mechanical adjustable pedal designed by KSR for Ford infringed any of its patents.  Next Page ->


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