What Does Toyota Gain by Freeing Up Hydrogen Fuel Cell Patents?

2015CES_Toyota_006 Mirai
Source: Toyota

It will take a massive mobilization in public infrastructure for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to make it in America. Judging by the slow burn that is the adoption of battery electric vehicles, automakers have a long and arduous slog ahead. To speed up the process, Toyota is offering up 5,680 fuel cell patents for royalty-free use in hopes the industry grows around it, and it could use the help. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.

Open fuel cell patents until 2020

Toyota’s Bob Carter told the audience at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that the automaker was opening up its patents for free use (a first in company history) partly as an acknowledgment of obstacles the industry faces in developing a fuel cell segment. Vehicle patents (i.e., those related to the Mirai) would remain royalty-free in the market’s growth stages through 2020, while hydrogen fueling and infrastructure patents will remain open indefinitely.

“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,” Carter said. Toyota’s accompanying statement highlighted the “long history of opening its intellectual properties through collaboration,” but the move reminds most industry watchers of Tesla’s open sourcing patents in June 2014.

That move struck many as bold and innovative, but in the six months hence (admittedly, a short time) there hasn’t been much development from acolytes or imitators of Tesla’s technology. One reason could be the fact so many automakers already feature electric vehicles in their product lineups. Ford, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Kia all have pure battery EVs on the road outside of “compliance” states on the West Coast.

By contrast, fuel cell vehicles are still rare birds on the automotive scene.

toyota mirai
Source: Toyota

Why Toyota needs help

If you think the number of electric vehicle charging stations remains puny, consider the available hydrogen fueling stations. The U.S. Department of Energy lists a total of 13 hydrogen stations in the U.S., with 11 of them located in California. Compared to nearly 9,000 EV charging stations and 22,000 EV charging outlets, there is no contest.

Among major automakers, Toyota is the only one offering a hydrogen for sale in the U.S. in 2015. The Mirai, which will go on sale late in the year at $57,500 (or a $499 per month lease), will be all by its lonesome on the market. Honda’s FCV, a futuristic hydrogen-electric sedan, will not make its way to the U.S. until 2016, while the FCX Clarity, the automaker’s original fuel cell vehicle, remains available in limited quantities. Finally, the Hyundai Tucson fuel cell vehicle will hit California in summer 2015 at a $499 per month lease. That’s the hydrogen car roundup for now.

Fuel cell vehicles may run on electric motors, but the main appeal is the ability to fill the hydrogen tanks in a few minutes like you would for gasoline rather than waiting for lithium-ion batteries to charge. Both Honda and Toyota are investing big in the fueling infrastructure, but much more work needs to be done. Consider the open-sourced Toyota patents a request (if not a cry) for help.