The auto industry is going open source
Elon Musk knows how to get attention. Just after disappointing results were released, the charismatic founder of Tesla tweeted on 31 January 2019: “All our patent are [sic] belong to you”. While this announcement made headlines and helped to eclipse Tesla’s difficulties, it’s not exactly new news. In fact, the Palo Alto manufacturer released all its patents back in June 2014. On its official blog, Tesla said it was committed to not going after competitors who wanted to use its technology “in good faith”.
“Patents serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors,” wrote Musk, who admitted that he did obtain patents before this: “At Tesla, we felt compelled to create patents out of concern that the big car companies would copy our technology and then use their massive manufacturing, sales and marketing power to overwhelm Tesla. We couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Translation: it’s better for Tesla to be copied in order to propagate its own standards, rather than fail at implementing them alone. In Tesla’s case, the number of available recharging stations is still largely inadequate. Its supercharger can recharge a Tesla S in only a few minutes (270 km range in 30 minutes), so by making the supercharger patent available to the public, Tesla has scored double. It means that competitors have every interest in adopting Tesla’s standard, and as such, they will contribute both to the cost of launching recharge stations and to the electric car boom, which will ultimately benefit Tesla.
Opening its patent portfolio also means that Tesla can share the costly investments that are needed to launch electric vehicles. “We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla’s position in this regard,” said Musk.
And indeed, other auto manufacturers have followed in Tesla’s footsteps.
"Patents serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors"
In May 2015, Ford announced it would release 650 patents associated with electric vehicles to other manufacturers. “Innovation is our goal. By sharing our research with other companies, we will accelerate the growth of electrified-vehicle technology and deliver even better products to customers,” explained Kevin Laydon, Ford’s director of electrification programmes, in 2015. “As an industry, we need to collaborate while we continue to challenge each other.”
Toyota, on the other hand, is focused on a competing technology: hydrogen fuel cell batteries. The Japanese company has made 5,600 electric vehicle-related patents available – subject to certain restrictions – until 2020, when the company plans to stop sharing its knowledge for free. The Japanese manufacturer, which sells the Mirai (a hydrogen electric car), has invested heavily in this technology. Hoping for a return on its investment, it needs to optimise all the relevant technical aspects and establish a network of hydrogen charging stations. To do so, Toyota is relying on co-innovation, a process that helped make hybrid vehicles so successful. To use the patents, engineers must notify Toyota, which favours players in its ecosystem and encourages its partners to provide other innovations in exchange.
“It started in the IT world, but open innovation will spread to many industries,” says Marc Palazon, president of the Open Source committee at Syntec Numérique, “because this method of research and development reduces costs and accelerates progress.”