Ford Takes on Tesla and Toyota – in the Patent Department
In the span of a few short years, hybrids, electric vehicles, and alternative fuel sources have gone from bit players to the automotive wave of the future. Now, just nine years after Who Killed the Electric Car? placed the failure of EVs on Big Oil and the major automakers, things are very different. Everyone from Hyundai to Ferrari offer a hybrid or electric vehicle, and as range continues to increase while charging times decrease, it finally looks like the electric car is here to stay. Toyota and Mercedes-Benz have both launched cars that ditch gasoline for zero-emissions hydrogen, and Audi is developing a diesel fuel developed from water and carbon dioxide, leaving fossil fuels in the lurch.
Of course, it’s impossible to mention the rise of EVs without mentioning Tesla, the company that proved that electric cars can actually be desirable. And while $105,000 will get you a P85D, the 691 horsepower all-wheel drive sedan that can go 253 miles on a single charge, the company will let you use its patents for free. What makes this even more remarkable is that other automakers are beginning to follow suit.
On the company’s website, founder Elon Musk Writes:
“Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal.”
This may be a bold move to make in the notoriously cutthroat automotive industry, but surprisingly, it’s beginning to catch on. After spending over 20 years developing its hydrogen fuel cell technology, Toyota announced in January that it will do the same and offer its 5,680 patents up for royalty-free use. Ford has become the latest automaker to get on the open-share bandwagon – but with a twist. In a move more classic Big Three than 21st century startup, it will be making its 650 electric vehicle patents available for an undisclosed fee.
While Tesla is the undisputed leader in EV technology with its 1,600-plus patents, Ford isn’t exactly known as a hybrid or EV pioneer. The C-Max Energi hybrid offers a compelling alternative to the Toyota Prius-V, but the only true EV it offers is an electrified version of the Focus. But among its patents are a system to extend battery life, and technology to make regenerative braking more efficient, both innovations that could be instrumental in the evolution of EVs. The Detroit titan is making its patents available through the website AutoHarvest.org, but while Ford’s ideas may turn out to be as important as Tesla’s, offering its ideas at a cost through an intermediary seems slightly incongruous with the open share trend.
Still, Ford may have reasons to be so guarded. Despite the seemingly utopian aims of these open sharing programs, competition is heating up in the EV segment, and it has the potential to turn ugly very soon. General Motors has been working on getting its sub-$40,000 Chevrolet Bolt into showrooms by 2017, around the same time Tesla’s $35,000 Model 3 is expected to reach customers. While Tesla’s high-end, low-volume cars have been seen as mostly harmless to the Big Three so far, the Model 3 is a major grab for market share, and the established automakers won’t let Tesla get away with it without a fight.
But from Elon Musk’s standpoint, all of this is good. The point of the company’s open share program was to increase competition in the EV segment, and contribute to the end of dependence on fossil fuels. If Toyota’s hydrogen-powered Mirai is successful, then it could spark similar competition for hydrogen-powered vehicles. Tesla has the potential to change the world because its products are disruptive to the automotive status quo. With its open share patent move, it looks like its competitors are buying it hook, line, and sinker.