BMW AG's plans to overtake competitors with a new airbag triggering system could be thwarted by a scientist who says the technology was stolen.
The system employs a technology developed from a premier US national defense laboratory that uses semiconductors to fire airbags. Though still unproven, it could become the basis of a more advanced airbag system with greater reliability, less bulk and lower costs.
But Alan Kammerman of Los Alamos, New Mexico, contends in a lawsuit that he spent three years developing a new-generation airbag igniter system for BMW, only to have the German automaker drop him and complete the work with another company. He seeks treble damages against BMW and half of its profits from the airbag igniter technology.
The case pits the scientist and his K&V Scientific Co. Inc., a Los Alamos engineering company with six employees, against one of the world's top carmakers.
In an age when the newest and best technology can give one automaker an advantage over its competitors, the dispute highlights the difficulty of bringing such technology to market - especially for an entrepreneur.
'The story is that of a little guy, a talented scientist who devoted a large part of this life to working with BMW to improve their technology and ended up being dumped,' said John Boyd, Kammerman's attorney.
Rudolf-Andreas Probst, a BMW spokesman in Munich, said the automaker is aware of the lawsuit but is not prepared to comment.
Kammerman's lawsuit, filed last month in US District Court in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is awaiting translation into German before it can be served on BMW at its Munich headquarters, according to Boyd.
The lawsuit says BMW has moved to complete the design process of the new system with SCB Technologies Inc., an Albuquerque, New Mexico, company that had earlier worked with Kammerman.
Kammerman is a physicist and 12-year veteran of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a US government weapons laboratory. But a few years after forming K&V in 1993, he learned of BMW's airbag technology needs from an engineer with German parts maker Robert Bosch GmbH of Stuttgart.
'The Bosch engineer told Kammerman that BMW was unprepared for the 'next generation' of airbag systems' and that Kammerman's knowledge would be helpful, the lawsuit alleges.
Kammerman worked out how to adapt semiconductor technology to the needs of the automotive industry and commercialize it. The suit contends SCB Technologies had failed to find that application after obtaining one of the first technology transfers from Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, another US defense lab that designs, among other things, the firing systems for nuclear-tipped submarine-borne ballistic missiles.
New Mexico has become a center of airbag technology because of so much research in explosives, both nuclear and conventional.
The semiconductor bridge of the new igniter bursts into a very hot plasma discharge when a low energy firing pulse is applied. This ignites a pyrotechnic material for inflating airbags.
Industry consultant Scott Upham said the technology has the potential to cut both the size and cost of igniters. Current igniters are about half the size of a shotgun shell and range in price from $1.80 to $4 each.
'They are pursuing a technology that may provide a step up over competitors,' said Upham, president of Providata Automotive Inc. in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.
But after three years of working 80-hour weeks, Kammerman said he learned in June 1997 that SCB Technologies and its parent, Ensign-Bickford Industries Inc., were preparing to cut him out of any business arrangements.
Michael Long, vice president and general counsel for Ensign-Bickford, said he was aware of the suit but declined comment.
Kammerman's lawsuit contends that BMW advised him on September 16, 1997, that it did not intend do business with K&V. BMW breached its confidentiality agreement with K&V, the lawsuit contends, by entering into a contract with Ensign-Bickford and SCB Technologies. The two companies are now engaged in the development and manufacturing of the next-generation airbag igniter system K&V designed and promoted.
The suit states: 'BMW agreed it would make no use of the information it received from K&V unless the parties came to an agreement regarding the terms under which BMW put the technology to commercial use.'
The lawsuit acknowledges a difficult fight for Kammerman. German law forbids contingent fees, and German lawyers will not represent a plaintiff such as K&V in litigation without up-front payments.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit adds, K&V and Kammerman are deeply in debt from borrowing to finance the BMW airbag igniter project.