Tesla's Elon Musk: Take Our Patents, They're Yours

Jun 12 2014, 5:29pm CDT | by

Last week, Elon Musk caused a buzz at Tesla Motors' annual shareholders meeting by hinting that the company was thinking of providing its electric cars patents to open source users.

On Thursday, he made good on his promise. On the company’s blog, Musk declared, “Yesterday, there was a wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of our Palo Alto headquarters. That is no longer the case. They have been removed, in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.”

It’s certainly not the way other car companies have done things. Through the years, Toyota Motor has made arrangements to license its hybrid-electric vehicle technology to General Motors and Ford Motor.

And of course, GM, Nissan, BMW and other carmakers have put thousands of engineers to work coming up with alternative fuel vehicle technologies, sometimes in joint ventures, sometimes alone.

So, the idea that Tesla’s patents are available to good faith users is a pretty big deal. Musk explained it this way.

“Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”

Musk admits he’s had a change of heart from his days at his first company, Zip2. Back then, he worked hard for his patents. But lately, Musk says he’s come to realize “too often these days they serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors.”

He didn’t make Tesla’s patents available originally for fear that big car companies would copy them. Come to find out, Musk said, electric car programs are small to non-existent, with sales comprising less than 1 percent of total vehicle sales.

Of course, Musk may have an ulterior motive in addition to his altruistic one. He’s about to pick the finalists in a four (and perhaps five) state race for the $5 billion gigafactory, which is meant to produce battery kits for as many as 500,000 vehicles by 2020.

No matter how ambitious Musk is for Tesla’s future, which is set to include a sport utility and mass market car in addition to the Model S sedan, he may need some other customers for those battery packs.

It will be interesting to see where Tesla’s technology might show up in the next few years, or even decades. Would any car company want to declare that they are using the patents? Will it be easy to figure out which one has Tesla technology under the hood?

By offering the open source technology, Musk brings to mind the way Toyota has operated its plants. Through the years, Toyota was willing to let scores of visitors inside its factories and even teach the Toyota Production System to those interested in learning its philosophy.

The trick was never in the information, however: it was how an organization embraced TPS and Toyota’s other ways of doing things. And, while Toyota has wrestled with quality problems, it remains admired for efficient manufacturing.

As with Toyota, Musk may be handing out guidebooks, but it’s still easily possible for others to get lost.

Tesla Model S



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