Can an open-source Tesla Motors spur electric car growth?

Tesla Motors' Elon Musk has opened up his company's patents, hoping automakers will start putting more electric cars on the road. But electric cars have a long road ahead before going mainstream.

Stephen Lam/Reuters/File
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, attends the Reuters Global Technology Summit in San Francisco June 18, 2013. Musk announced Thursday that Tesla Motors' patents will be open for anyone to use "in good faith."

Luxury electric carmaker Tesla Motors has opened up all of its patents to other automakers in an effort to advance electric vehicle technology. The California-based company will not sue anyone who wants to use its technology ‘in good faith,’ chief executive Elon Musk announced in a blog Thursday.

Electric car programs at major automakers are minuscule, making up of less than one percent of manufacturers’ total vehicle sales. Despite rising sales and technological advances, electric cars remain a small fraction of global sales, and many drivers remain skeptical of the technology. By opening up its patents, Tesla Motors hopes to change that.

“It has the potential of being an important deal,” says John O’Dell, a senior editor for Edmunds.com. “It is important to Telsa as much as to anybody else. Tesla needs a vibrant electric car market in order to succeed.” 

If everything works out, technology for Tesla Motors’ battery and Supercharger system could become the industry standard for electric cars, Mr. O’Dell says. But Tesla needs more people – both automakers and consumers – to be interested in electric cars and understand the potential environmental benefits, he adds.

“At best, the large automakers are producing electric cars with limited range in limited volume,” Mr. Musk wrote in the post. “Some produce no zero emission cars at all.

Electric cars can be up to three times as efficient as gasoline-powered cars, according to Consumer Reports. Electric motors are 90 percent efficient at converting energy into motion, while conventional cars and hybrids are 30 to 40 percent efficiency for converting energy.

Still, the energy used in electric cars isn't always as eco-friendly as it may seem. Mining for the materials used in the vehicles’ motors and batteries can be ‘environmentally nasty,’ O’Dell says, and that using electricity coming from coal isn’t green.

Those drawbacks, however, don’t outweigh electric cars’ overall positive effect on the environment as the world shifts toward cleaner fuels, O’Dell says. 

In the meantime, people will have to wait to see how Tesla Motors’ open patents will change electric cars and the environment, if at all. It is too soon to see how quickly automakers will adapt Tesla Motors' technology, says Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book.

On Friday, BMW and Tesla Motors met to discuss the future of electric cars and charging stations. The costs and logistics of putting charging stations across the country are important to consider for implementing more electric cars, both Brauer and O'Dell say.

Automakers are also experimenting with other alternative fuels. Toyota had recently announced it was moving toward hydrogen fuel cells and moving away from battery-powered electric cars, Brauer says. Toyota has been known to champion its Prius, a fully-hybrid electric car, so this move speaks volume, he adds.

"Think about how many Priuses have been sold in the last 15 years and how much of a hybrid effort they put out there," Brauer says.

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