Toyota wants fuel-cell model Mirai to have competition

January 7, 2015, 5:15 PM UTC
Courtesy of Toyota

Toyota Motor is lending a helping hand to current and future rivals in the fuel-cell vehicle business by granting access to its intellectual property, namely access to more than 5,600 Toyota patents.

The move is hardly altruistic. Toyota is eager for more automakers to enter the fuel-cell vehicle business as quickly as possible in order to create an infrastructure for distribution of hydrogen, which fuel cells burn to make electricity.

The most immediate beneficiary of Toyota’s patents could be Honda Motor, an arch-rival that also is building fuel-cell cars in limited number but hopes, like Toyota, one day to be a mass manufacturer. General Motors (GM), which for years prior to its bankruptcy was gung-ho on fuel-cell automotive technology, is sure to examine Toyota’s patents to gauge their usefulness. Honda and GM now collaborate on fuel cell technology, as do Daimler AG and Nissan Motor.

Toyota said that it will request reciprocal privileges to those companies requesting access to its patents, though it wasn’t a condition of use. Most of the patents will be offered free of charge until 2020. A small number of patents covering the installation and operation of hydrogen fueling stations will be offered indefinitely.

Elon Musk, founder of Tesla (TSLA), last June similarly offered his company’s electric-car patents free of charge and for the same reason: to spur more manufacture of battery-powered vehicles, which might create demand for charging stations and other infrastructure.

(The outspoken Musk views fuel-cell technology as impractical and has said so publicly, adding a delicious twist to Toyota’s intellectual property giveaway.)

“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,” said Bob Carter, Toyota’s senior vice president of North American automotive operations.

In November, Toyota introduced its Mirai fuel-cell vehicle in California. The appeal of a hydrogen-powered fuel cell is that it creates electric current with only water vapor as an emission. Hydrogen doesn’t occur naturally and can be manufactured from water, using electricity, or from hydrocarbons. Toyota will roll out Mirai slowly in California and a handful of states; it could sell for roughly $60,000, though the automaker has declined so far to price it.

Skeptics of Toyota’s vision of hydrogen’s role as a power source for vehicles are sure to recall the same doubts about the automaker’s Prius gas-electric hybrid when it debuted in 1997. Since then, Prius has developed into a highly successful family of automobiles. Toyota, meanwhile, has only dabbled in battery-powered vehicles, preferring to concentrate on fuel cells.

The case for alternative fuel sources probably may be weaker today than a few decades ago, given the recent falling price of energy and the development of new fossil fuel sources, such as the natural gas deposits in North America. But regulators around the world aren’t likely soon to reverse measures meant to find cleaner, cheaper and more abundant energy; for them, hydrogen has to look attractive.