Tesla Motors has opened the floodgates on their patents for free use as open-source material. (via Tesla)
Back in June of this year, the enigmatic CEO of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, released the company’s patents on electric vehicle technology for anyone and everyone to use. Obviously, this was done in an effort to help other automobile manufacturers speed up the development of all electric vehicles, but could it have an adverse effect for the pioneering EV company? Looking at the mobile industry we can see a flurry of lawsuits stemming from the Smartphone Patent Wars with Apple, Samsung, Nokia (and a host of others) making accusations that rival mobile manufacturers had stolen something from their respective device designs (via The Guardian).
These lawsuits have a tendency to stagnate development in terms of new technology, which leaves the consumer with ‘revisions’ of current technology rather than innovation. In turn, giant corporations essentially corner the market with legal landmines that prohibit others from advancing in progress. Take Apple’s iPhone for example, the popular smartphone hasn’t changed much since the first model was introduced. All up to generation 4 have featured TN LCD displays with IPS taking their place from then on. The same with the iPhone’s CPUs, which feature ARM’s Cortex-A8 at various speeds and wasn’t changed until the company’s 5th revision. Could Apple’s innovation have come sooner without all the legal issues?
In his press release, Elon Musk noted the trend of patent wars and the effect they have on furthering technology development. When he founded Tesla Motors back in 2003, he was determined to patent every piece of EV technology that the company developed. Worries were prevalent that mainstream automobile manufacturers would copy their technology and use their massive manufacturing plants and marketing power to drown-out his business. Fortunately for Tesla (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it), big automobile manufacturers had no interest in EV technology and alternatively pursued hybrid designs that run on both fossil fuels and electric batteries.
Tesla’s 4th generation Roadster is still popular with car enthusiasts and has a range of 245 miles on average.
Obviously, those manufacturers saw the potential of Tesla’s Roadster after the company soldout that model (twice) within 3-weeks of its introduction back in 2006/07 and have been developing their own take on the electric vehicle in an effort to compete in the growing market. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tesla_Motors#Tesla_Roadster). It is still important to note, however, that most of those major manufacturers (Ford, Chevy, Mitsubishi, Nissan, etc.) still churn out conventional vehicles with better fuel efficiency as their ‘bread and butter’, with just 1% or less of sales garnered on EV sales. (source: http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/all-our-patent-are-belong-you)
A major problem those companies face with EV sales lie with the limited range their respective vehicles can travel before needing a recharge. Most EVs on the market have low-energy density batteries that have a long recharge time, giving consumers ‘range anxiety’ and therefore they are leery of purchasing them. This is just one example Elon Musk hopes can be rectified with his open-source patent release. This would allow those manufacturers to incorporate his designs without any liability as long as they use the technology ‘in good faith’ (whatever that might mean). More than likely, this means that companies can use the patents to create something similar rather than designing the exact same vehicle and simply slapping their own logo on it.
BMW’s i8 is actually a hybrid and does not currently feature any of Tesla’s EV technology. (via BMW)
Now that the patents are free for all, will major automobile manufacturers take advantage of Elon’s generous gesture? There were talks that Tesla Motors was collaborating with BMW to share technology, including battery and charging station developments to further the EV movement, however this may no longer be the case. BMW recently released a statement with the German business paper Wirtschafts Woche that the company has no plans with collaborating with Tesla Motors on anything, including car batteries, manufacturing plants and other EV components.
BMW did state however, that they were not opposed to selling Tesla lightweight carbon fiber material featured in their i3 and i8 line of automobiles for their future EV designs (via a report from the Business Insider, stating the fake partnership claims). Still, it would seem a smart move to release the patents especially when the company is looking to build a lithium-ion ‘Gigafactory’ to keep up with demand for their EVs. If other manufacturers took advantage of Tesla’s patents and focused on just battery development and manufacturing, it could turn into a lucrative endeavor for all those involved, including Tesla.
Toyota’s Mirai features hydrogen fuel cells rather than li-ion batteries for power. (via Toyota)
So far, there have been no reports on manufacturers taking advantage of the patent explosion, however large companies tend to ‘wade’ into the waters of new technology rather than ‘jumping’ in., The risks seem minimal at this point, considering the technology is already proven. Or perhaps li-ion batteries are about to become obsolete in EVs with the recent announcement of Toyota’s Mirai- a hydrogen-based fuel cell vehicle, which debuts next year in Japan and California. Unlike li-ion batteries, hydrogen fuel cells can be replenished in minutes rather than hours and produce nothing but water for emissions, making for a ‘greener’ planet.
The question remains as to whether or not Elon Musk will benefit from unleashing the hordes of patents in their possession or if their battery technology will become obsolete if (or when) hydrogen fuel cell technology takes hold. One thing is for certain however, the controversial CEO has pioneered several successful tech companies (including PayPal and SpaceX) and with EVs becoming more popular as the years roll on, it would seem a safe bet that making his patents opensource will payoff for manufacturers in the long run.
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