Patent sharing for a transport revolution

Last week there was a flurry of news about Toyota, who have just done something unusual. They announced that they are opening up their patents on hydrogen fuel cell technology and sharing them for free.

Normally a company’s research is private, or is made available for a royalty fee, but these 5,680 patents will be free to use until 2020.

There’s a simple reason why. Toyota believes there’s a future in hydrogen fuel cell cars, but in the words of the company’s president, “one car company alone cannot create a hydrogen society.” Toyota can make the cars, but without networks of charging stations, nobody is going to want one. They’re also expensive, and hardly affordable for most motorists. By releasing a wave of innovation around hydrogen fuel cells, the costs will come down considerably.

Toyota might be risking its technological headstart by releasing its intellectual property, but the research would be wasted if the market doesn’t develop. So it’s in their interests to collaborate and work together, as they said at their press conference:

“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.”

Tesla did something similar last year, when they announced that other companies were welcome to use their electric car technology. “The mission of the company is to accelerate the widespread adoption of electric cars,” they said at the time. For Tesla the enemy is not the other car companies, but the combustion engine.

The merits of hydrogen fuel cells is a topic for another post, but it’s great to see companies prepared to collaborate in the way Toyota and Tesla are doing. Climate change requires us to move beyond fossil fuels, and their depletion will force our hand eventually anyway. There will be revolutions in energy and transportation, and the more companies are prepared to share their learning and work together, the faster we can accelerate the transition.

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