Dominance in the prototyping phase. The case of hydrogen passenger cars

S. Bakker, M.T.H. Meeus, H. van Lente

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)


The notion of dominant designs refers to dominance in the market, hence the literature on dominant designs ignores the selection process that already takes place in pre-market R&D stages of technological innovation. In this paper we address the question to what extent pre-market selection takes place within an industry and how this may lead to dominance of one design over others before the market comes into play. Furthermore we study what selection criteria apply in the absence of actual market criteria. We do so through a historical analysis of design paths for hydrogen passenger cars. We argue that prototypes are used by firms in their internal search process towards new designs and at the same time as means of communicating technological expectations to competitors and outsiders. In both senses, prototypes can be taken as indicators of design paths in the ongoing search process of an industry. We analyzed the designs of prototypes of hydrogen passenger cars from the 1970s till 2008. A database is compiled of 224 prototypes of hydrogen passenger cars, listing the car's manufacturer, year of construction, hydrogen conversion technology, fuel cell type, and capacity of its hydrogen storage system. The analysis shows to what extent one design gained dominance and which strategies were adopted by the firms in their search processes. We conclude that indeed a dominant prototyping design has emerged: the fuel cell combined with high pressure gaseous storage. Actual and expected performance acted as selection criterion, but so did regulation and strategic behaviour of the firms. Especially imitation dynamics, with industry leaders and followers, is a major explanatory factor. Our main theoretical claim is that the selection of a dominant prototyping design is based on an interaction of sets of expectations about future performance of technological components and regulatory pressure that results in herding behaviour of the firms. Highlights ► Variation and selection of design options takes place in the prototyping phase of innovation. ► We study this process in the case of hydrogen passenger car prototypes. ► After a period of variation, the firms by and large converge on a single design. ► Technological expectations and regulatory pressure result in this herding behaviour of the firms. Keywords: Dominant design, Innovation, Expectations, Prototyping, Hydrogen, Automotive industry
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)871-883
JournalResearch Policy
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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