Thursday, January 8, 2015

Toyota opens up their fuel-cell patents

As regular readers know, I have been following the fuel-cell story so carefully I actually attracted the attention of Toyota.  And while I consider a working fuel-cell car to be a remarkable triumph of very sophisticated engineering, I also believe that without a LOT more infrastructure, no one will buy a car that requires hydrogen to start.  I could see a cab company with a central garage and fueling station buying such a problem-fueled vehicle, and maybe if Toyota were to build a super-clever taxi around their fuel cells, they might gain some market share.  But for the general public, the infrastructure problem is probably fatal.

That doesn't mean that Toyota will go down without a good fight.  This is an age where open-source is still considered a valid development strategy.  Besides, hardly anyone—especially in Asia—is terribly concerned about enforcing patents anyway.  And so we see that Toyota has announced that they are willing to share their fuel-cell-car inventions.  Making fuel-cell technology open-source is a nice move but I seriously doubt it is enough to counter the infrastructure elephant in the room.

On the other hand, building the world's most perfect taxi would be an incredible marketing campaign.  Cities with smog problems could specify a zero emission taxi fleet that could be fulfilled with fuel-celled cars.  Passengers would get a demonstration of how quiet and agile electric cars can be.  And folks would gain experience in building and supplying hydrogen fueling stations.  From there, the infrastructure could be built out.  I mean, an all-electric fleet of personal transportation is imperative or there will be no personal transportation.  So the question becomes, will hydrogen fuel cells be a better choice than storage batteries?

Other Car Companies Will Be Able To Use Toyota’s Hydrogen Fuel Cell Patents, Royalty-Free


"Other Car Companies Will Be Able To Use Toyota’s Hydrogen Fuel Cell Patents, Royalty-Free"

Toyota has announced that it will allow its competitors to use any and all of its 5,680 patents for hydrogen fuel cell cars, a move the company hopes will jump-start the widespread commercial production of cars powered by zero-emission hydrogen gas.

Companies that manufacture and sell fuel cells will be allowed to use the patents royalty-free for the next five years, Toyota announced Monday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Of the nearly 6,000 patents, about 1,970 are related to the in-vehicle fuel cell stacks, 290 surround the technology of high-pressure hydrogen tanks needed to safely transport the fuel, and 70 relate to hydrogen production, according to Gizmodo.

If the move sounds familiar, that’s because it is very similar to what famously innovative electric car company Tesla Motors did this summer. In June, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that the company would let its competitors use its patents under what Bloomberg Businessweek called“open-source-inspired agenda” at Tesla. “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology,” Musk said at the time.

The reason both Toyota and Tesla would want competitors to use their technology is simple: without more production of these low-emission cars, there is little incentive to create the expensive infrastructure needed to make them mainstream. Electric cars need recharging stations; hydrogen cars need hydrogen gas filling stations. Without that infrastructure, it is unlikely that either electric or hydrogen cars would be able to compete with the massive gas-powered vehicle market.

For now, hydrogen and electric cars seem to be competing with each other for the title of “best environmentally-friendly vehicle.” Hydrogen cars, put simply, are run on hydrogen gas, a type of fuel touted by the U.S. Department of Energy as an “environmentally friendly fuel that has the potential to dramatically reduce our dependence on imported oil.” Electric cars, meanwhile, most often use electrical energy stored in batteries.

Both face their own unique challenges aside from a lack of refueling infrastructure. Electric vehicles can be expensive, and if the power charging the battery comes from a fossil fuel plant, some say that the lifecycle environmental and health damages of an electric vehicle can actually begreater than gasoline-powered cars. And hydrogen cars can have similar problems: As ClimateProgress’ Joe Romm has noted, truly “green” hydrogen is nearly nonexistent, and it would be more expensive to run one’s car on green hydrogen than gasoline.

As of now, transportation — the whole gambit of cars, trucks, trains, and planes — is the largest single source of air pollution in the country. Needless to say, air pollution can exacerbate respiratory conditions like asthma and bronchitis, and has been linked to cancer and cardiovascular disease. more


  1. Two thoughts: First, just to remind people, building the infrastructure needed to support electric and hydrogen-fueled vehicles is a big chunk of the $100 trillion price tag for seriously addressing climate change. This should largely be private investment basically replicating the present system of independently-owned gas stations and the distribution system that supports it. Second, a local government mandate for zero-emissions taxi fleets is a brilliant idea. The obvious problem is that there are no private investors right now interested in building even a local system of electric and hydrogen service stations. (Part of the larger problem of most investors being interested only in speculative equity, bond, and derivatives trading right now.) Local governments can spur what's needed by providing needed real estate for little or no money, including through seizure for what is called in USA "eminent domain", and favorable tax treatment. I would strongly advise that such incentives be given only in exchange for a large ownership share by the local government. There is thus no up front costs to the local government other than administrative costs, with the probability of a huge investment gain a decade or two down the road (ha ha). If the people at Toyota are as smart as they seem to be, they should find some way of funding the dissemination of these ideas.

    1. You are absolutely correct. This post is representative of the old me. I forget we have $100 trillion to spend—AND a couple of centuries of USA private-public arrangements to emulate. I was just suggesting that it would be easier to pick hydrogen as the "winner" if there were a couple of hundred thousand vehicles on the road demonstrating that this works.