In June of 2014, Tesla Motors' CEO Elon Musk did something highly unusual: he unlocked Tesla's patent box and offered to share the company's electric car technology with other automakers.
The following month, BMW did the same thing.
Now, Ford is following suit, giving rivals around the globe access to its portfolio of patents related to electric vehicle technology. Those patents cover a range of features, including battery charging (Method and Apparatus for Battery Charge Balancing, patent No. US5764027), regenerative braking (Temperature Dependent Regenerative Brake System for Electric Vehicle, patent No. US6275763), and even technology that monitors drivers and offers tips on improving performance (Driving Behavior Feedback Interface, patent No. US8880290).
Why would Ford do such a thing? According to Kevin Layden, director of Ford Electrification Programs: "Innovation is our goal. The way to provide the best technology is through constant development and progress. By sharing our research with other companies, we will accelerate the growth of electrified vehicle technology and deliver even better products to customers."
A slightly more cynical view would be that Ford wants other automakers to ramp up production of electric cars so that the auto market remains a level playing field and Ford isn't left holding the bag.
Consider this: the EPA has set some pretty lofty fuel economy and emissions goals for the auto industry to meet within the next 10 years. Hybrid and fully electric cars can play a big role in meeting those targets, as they already produce fewer emissions than their gas-powered siblings and they're becoming increasingly comparable in terms of range. Unfortunately, hybrid and electric vehicle sales only make up a tiny, tiny percentage of the global market. That's not because automakers can't keep up with demand, it's because consumers haven't warmed up to these high-tech rides. Why not?
- Hybrids and EVs are still more expensive than vehicles that run on gas alone -- sometimes vastly more expensive, even after federal and state tax credits.
- Fuel economy of gas-powered vehicles is increasing, slowly but surely, and it's a technology that people feel comfortable with.
- Gas is cheap for now (even though many understand that prices will rise in the future), giving consumers fewer reasons to switch to hybrids and EVs.
- The charging infrastructure for electrified vehicles isn't robust enough for many consumers' tastes, leaving them with range anxiety.
In other words, the auto industry needs to make electric cars to meet federal regulations, but few consumers are excited about buying them. By opening up its patents, Ford hopes to give its rivals the tools to build better electric vehicles -- the end result being that automakers around the globe will build more attractive, affordable EVs so that consumers begin buying them like hotcakes. Otherwise, Ford and other innovators could end up doing the right thing (in the EPA's eyes, anyway), but get shafted on the sales floor by reluctant consumers.
If you're part of a start-up and you'd like a peek at Ford's patents, you can contact the automakers commercialization and licensing office. You can also access the patents through AutoHarvest, an online community that "allows users of all types to showcase capabilities, technologies and needs system-wide and then privately connect with fellow inventors and commercializers to explore technology and business development opportunities of mutual interest". (Translation: it's a private kickstarter.) If you go that route, though, you'll need to pony up a fee.