Tesla’s Patent Giveaway Will Help Electric Cars, But it Will Take Years To Work

Ten years ago, a small Californian startup called Tesla Motors was trying to set the world alight with its super-fast, super-sexy Roadster concept vehicle.  Today, it is one of the most influential electric car manufacturers in the world, and it’s even prepared to give away patents to further the cause of electric vehicles.

Tesla's Patents, while now open source, don't mean we're going to see an explosion in EV development just yet.

Tesla’s Patents, while now open source, won’t immediately spark an electric car revolution.

Despite the good intentions of Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] CEO Elon Musk in the Great Patent Giveaway of 2014 however, the nobel idea of clearing a technological path for others to follow isn’t going to change the face of the automotive industry overnight.

It’s going to take years. Not because of a lack of trying on Tesla’s part, but because of the glacial movement of the auto industry and the way cars are made.

We’ll explain.

Large multinational automakers follow development and product cycles measured in years or even decades. While the average production lifecycle of a particular model is between six and eight years with a minor mid-cycle refresh after the first three or four years, development can take another two or three years on top of that.

This is all for a good reason. Large multinational automakers developing a car for multiple markets need to ensure that their car meets the relevant emissions and safety standards for each market. At every turn, engineering decisions and research needs to be justified to multiple executive boards and of course, shareholders. If the board or shareholders disapprove of the direction being taken, things can slow down even more.

How long does it take for an electric car to be made? A good example is BMW’s i3 electric car. While BMW announced project i back in February 2011 and the BMW i3 was first unveiled as a concept car in late 2012, it took another year before the car was ready for production. Its sibling, the BMW i8, was first unveiled as a concept coupe called the Vision Efficient Dynamics concept in 2009 and has only just gone on sale. In both cases, the BMW board was generally behind the development of the i-brand.

The Nissan LEAF, Nissan’s first all-electric car, wasn’t unveiled in production form until August 2009, after years of electric car development. It took another full year and a half before the LEAF went on sale, with similar support from Nissan’s executive board.

Tesla's patents will take some time to take their effect on the EV world.

Tesla’s patents will take some time to take their effect on the EV world.

Admittedly, any car company wanting to use Tesla’s technology in its own electric vehicles will significantly cut research and development time, but it’s worth noting that Tesla’s patent giveaway doesn’t mean that Tesla is about to provide production-ready components to rival car companies.  Nor do Tesla’s patents give easy instruction to others wishing to use its technology.

Instead, Tesla’s patents are essentially technological primers, documents which lay out the fundamental principals and designs used by Tesla in its vehicles. To implement that technology in its own vehicles, automakers will need to first bring their engineers up to speed with the technology so those engineers can understand it and integrate it into future models.

It will then need to build components as required to Tesla specifications, carrying on the manufacturing process as it would with any other vehicle technology. This of course all comes with the approval of the board.

When you account for the number of people involved in approving a new car design and the months of meetings and design choices which accompany it, then mix in the decades of tradition and procedure most automakers have, it’s unlikely we’ll see a massive shift towards Tesla’s technology any time soon.

It’s likely too that unless Tesla’s technology is so far in advance of the technology already being used by rival automakers, existing production plans will be followed through before any changes are made.

Past ‘freely given’ automotive technologies — such as the three-point seatbelt design from Volvo and the catalytic converter from GM — took years to be widely adopted. In both cases, legislation helped expedite adoption in some countries.

Yes, charging technology is likely the first to happen, and it’s something that is relatively simple to implement on a larger scale. But even with Nissan and BMW talking with Tesla about sharing its charging technology, we’ll be surprised if the fruit of those talks will be visible any time soon.

The release of Tesla’s patents to the outside world will have a major impact on the electric car world, but don’t expect it to happen overnight.

That is, unless the automotive industry can catch up with the speed at which Tesla implements design changes and new technology, car buyers demand a faster, quicker adoption of Tesla technology, or Tesla gets so far ahead in the market that catching up is the only choice.

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