When electric automaker Tesla Motors announced last year that it was about to make its registered electric car patents open source, many mainstream automakers dismissed the action as nothing more than a publicity stunt.
Now Japanese firm Toyota — a company which was unusually quiet on the subject of Tesla’s patent sharing — has announced it will be following Tesla’s lead by making some 5,680 of its hydrogen fuel cell-related patents available for ‘royalty-free use’ around the world.
The news was announced yesterday at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where Toyota outlined its visions for sharing its hydrogen fuel cell technology with the rest of the automotive world.
“At Toyota, we believe that when good ideas are shared, great things can happen,” said Bob Carter, Senior Vice President of Automotive Operations at Toyota Sales USA Inc. “The first generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, launched between 2015 and 2020, will be critical, requiring a concerted effort and unconventional collaboration between automakers, government regulators, academia and energy providers. By eliminating traditional corporate boundaries, we can speed the development of new technologies and move into the future of mobility more quickly, effectively and economically.”
Toyota says that many of its patents stretch back twenty years or more, illustrating the many years it has been refining and developing hydrogen fuel cell technology. Despite this, there’s been barely any commercial application of hydrogen fuel cell technology demonstrated outside of the occasional concept car or test fleet.
Some rival car companies have yet to even embrace the technology, with some criticising the costs of developing and producing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as aggressively as Toyota dismisses plug-in cars.
This lack of commercial development, Toyota says, is the reason it is opening up its patents to usually rivalled automakers who are aiming to produce and sell fuel cell vehicles, as well as fuel cell parts suppliers and infrastructure providers.
Like Tesla however, Toyota’s decision to share its previously patent-restricted technologies is self-serving. In both cases, the royalty-free sharing of patented technologies help each firm work towards their respective automotive visions of the future.
Tesla’s vision of the future is one in which everyone drives a battery electric vehicle recharged by renewably-generated electricity. Toyota’s vision is one in which everyone drives a hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle powered by renewably-generated hydrogen.
In sharing its battery, drivetrain, and charging technologies with companies who share its ethos and approach to plug in vehicles, Tesla ensures that its Supercharger standard becomes more widely adopted and that Tesla’s customers — who are provided with electricity for free at Supercharger stations for the duration of their Tesla ownership — are given an increasingly large number of places to refuel for free.
In sharing its hydrogen fuel cell patents, Toyota hopes to bring down the costs associated with hydrogen fuel cell production through economies of scale, reducing the cost of hydrogen fuel cell cars for all.
But more importantly, it eliminates some of the hurdles currently in place for those companies wishing to design, build and operate hydrogen refuelling stations. Without a comprehensive refuelling infrastructure, the automaker knows commercial viability is impossible.
Like Tesla however, the true measure of success for Toyota’s offer of free patents will be how many of its rival automakers opt to use its technology. Like Betamax and VHS, we suspect there’s a new green car technology war just about to start between hydrogen and plug-ins.
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