In January 2015, Toyota announced that they would release their fuel-cell patents to rival manufacturers, for free. This is in an effort to speed the development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. 

This announcement was made at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It's a similar move to the one that Tesla made in 2014, when its Chief Executive, Elon Musk, revealed the company's patents to spark innovation and draw publicity.

Toyota has similar goals to Tesla in the fuel-cell automobile market. Toyota's senior vice president, Bob Carter, stated that “at Toyota, we believe that when good ideas are shared, great things can happen.” He also said that the “first generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, launched between 2015 and 2020, will be critical, requiring a concerted effort and unconventional collaboration.”

A total of 5,680 Toyota patents will be available for other manufacturers to build and sell fuel-cell vehicles. Energy companies, parts suppliers, and bus manufacturers will also be able to use these patents, royalty-free, through 2020.

Seventy additional patents related to hydrogen fueling stations will also be available, which is believed by Toyota and analysts to spur a widespread adoption of hydrogen electric vehicles.

Devin Lindsay, the principle powertrain analyst with IHS Automotive, stated that “right now, the automakers all need to help each other, and more infrastructure is going to help kick-start the industry.”

These patents also relate to Toyota's Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell car, which is currently in development and is set to hit the U.S. market in October. It's already on sale in Japan for a price of $60,000. It has a range around 300 miles and can be refueled at a hydrogen station within five minutes. 

A Long Road Ahead

While this is good news for the development of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, Toyota may not be sacrificing much to make its patents available. “I don't think the technology that Toyota has is that groundbreaking,” stated David Cole, head of AutoHarvest Foundation, a nonprofit organization at Wayne State University in Detroit, and the chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research. He went on to say that “it's not a patent issue.”

The development of cost-effective hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles has been slowed by the high cost of research and development, as well as a shortage of innovative minds to determine how to make hydrogen fuel more energy dense and more efficient, said Cole. This is one reason that competitive automakers are so eager to work together on the technology.

Honda, which had its own hydrogen fuel-cell car set to hit the market in 2016, partnered with General Motors on new applications for fuel cells. Combined, these companies lead the industry in fuel-cell patents.

Ford, Renault, Nissan, and Mercedes' parent company, Daimler, also agreed to develop fuel-cell technology that would be shared between them.

Cole also noted that there's a lot of collaboration occurring and that it's necessary to develop the fuel-cell technology as far and as quickly as they'd like. Toyota says it's been developing the fuel-cell technology for the past 20 years, but it doesn't have enough to persuade the industry to adopt hydrogen as a standalone fuel source. That said, Carter does believe that hydrogen electric will be the primary fuel source for the next 100 years. 

It won't happen overnight, which is why Toyota and other companies are seeking to eliminate corporate boundaries and get the research and development further along. 

Manufacturers value the idea of hydrogen fuel vehicles for a few reasons:

  • Consumers have a “range anxiety” with fully electric vehicles, even though most vehicles extend past the average commute range.
  • Fuel-cell vehicles have a range of 300 to 400 miles, and can refill in minutes, but have a smooth drivetrain similar to an electric car. 
  • Hydrogen fuel-cell combines hydrogen with oxygen within the cell, which generates electricity and emits water vapor as waste. This gives them zero emissions. 

By the year 2025, California wants 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road and at least 15 percent of vehicles to be zero emission. This includes plug-in hybrids, EVs, and hydrogen vehicles. Delivering on this promise is about more than just the technology; however, it also requires the production of hydrogen and a network of hydrogen fuel stations throughout the country. 

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