Tesla patent giveaway to boost electric vehicle take-up

13 June 2014
By Edd Gent
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Tesla's Model S is the most advanced consumer electric car, but CEO Elon Musk has decided to give away his firms intellectual property for free

Tesla's Model S is the most advanced consumer electric car, but CEO Elon Musk has decided to give away his firms intellectual property for free

Electric car maker Tesla Motors will give away the company's entire patent portfolio to anyone who promises not to engage courtroom battles over intellectual property.

The move, announced by chief executive Elon Musk in a blog on the company's website, is designed to encourage other manufacturers to expand beyond petrol-burning vehicles and opens the door to more collaboration with Tesla, which is already making electric systems for Daimler and Toyota.

“Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport,” wrote Musk.  “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.

“Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”

Other car makers using Tesla's technology could potentially share the cost of Tesla's charging stations, and more charging stations could entice sceptical buyers concerned about their range to try electric cars.

The Palo Alto, California-based company currently makes one vehicle – the $70,000 (£41,733) Model S sedan – and is developing two others. Its Model X crossover is due out next year, and Tesla wants to start making a cheaper model by 2017.

It is also currently scouting locations for a $5bn battery factory to increase supplies, but Musk said Tesla cannot make a dent in the market by itself, and thinks the patents could be a "modest" help to other companies developing electric cars.

He said Tesla has gotten few requests for technology from rivals, but he thinks that is partly because patents were blocking access.

"If we can do things that don't hurt us and help the US industry, than we should do that," he said.

Prashand Kumta, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's school of engineering, said Tesla's lithium-ion battery technology is not unique, but how the company packages that technology and designs its cars could be useful to other companies.

At the start of this year, Tesla had been issued 203 patents covering its batteries and other key features that distinguish its electric cars from gasoline-powered vehicles. Another 280 patent applications are still pending in the US and other countries, according to Tesla's regulatory filings.

The earliest any of Tesla's current patents expires is in 2026, so the company is relinquishing a potentially valuable long-term advantage by giving away its intellectual property to its rivals.

But other companies have shown that technology giveaways can pay off. Even though it spent millions designing Android, Google made the software available to all comers at no charge. Google was more interested in expanding the market for mobile devices and ensuring its search engine and other digital services supported by advertising would be prominently featured on them.

The strategy has worked out well for Google so far. Android is now on more than one billion devices, surpassing Apple's iOS as the world's most widely used mobile operating system.

The open-source movement has long appealed to the egalitarian mindset of most technologists, so the patent decision could help recruit talent. Musk named his company after Nikola Tesla, a famous inventor who became so exasperated with the legal system that he finally stopped patenting his ideas.

"Technology leadership is determined by where the best engineers want to work," Musk said. "Putting in long hours for a corporation is hard. Putting in long hours for a cause is easy."

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