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Named for Nikola Tesla, the famous inventor who stopped patenting his ideas due to legal frustrations, electric automaker Tesla Motors of California announced it will give away its entire patent portfolio, the Associated Press reported June 13.
Tesla Motors makes highly innovative, fully electrical cars that have had issues gaining domestic market traction (though they’ve been a big hit in Norway); Tesla takes the interesting approach of only selling direct to its customers to save commissions and keep costs down. However, most U.S. states limit or ban direct-to-consumer car sales.
Although Tesla has followed the typical Silicon Valley approach to marketing new technology (aiming for affluent buyers first, then broadening offerings to more middle-income buyers as technology is finessed, like with cell phones), it has from the outset been guided by the goal of hastening electric vehicle technology throughout the world.
That technology was nearly crushed by the U.S. automotive industry in the mid-1990s, as outlined by the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car. The film details the roles of automobile manufacturers, the oil industry, the U.S. government, the California government and consumers in first fostering and then curtailing the development and adoption of electric vehicles.
Nearly 5000 electric cars were designed and manufactured by a handful of makers, only to be recalled and destroyed (a few were donated to museums and educational institutions). Tesla introduced its Roadster — which uses an alternative battery technology and an AC motor descended directly from Nikola Tesla’s original 1882 design — two years after the film’s release.
General Motors’ former vice president told The New Yorker in 2009, “All the geniuses here at General Motors kept saying lithium-ion technology is 10 years away, and Toyota agreed with us — and boom, along comes Tesla. So I said, ‘How come some tiny little California startup, run by guys who know nothing about the car business, can do this, and we can’t?’ That was the crowbar that helped break up the log jam.”
Telsa Motors, in being a tech startup rather than an established auto manufacturer entwined with the oil industry, seems to be at an advantage in the electric car field, sharing a philosophy that’s closer to that held by many Internet pioneers rather than old-school industrialists.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk wrote on the company blog that the patents were being released “in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.”
“By opening its patents, Tesla rightly realizes it’s better to be the best product in a large industry than the only product in a niche one,” noted Silicon Valley entrepreneur Aaron Levie.
The planet’s environment stands to be the biggest beneficiary: electric cars make up less than 1% of U.S. sales, partly due to concerns about their range and charging station availability (not to mention industry’s setback in the 1990s).
Tesla Motors has also built a network of fast-charging Supercharger stations to facilitate longer distance journeys in their Model S (Tesla’s luxury sedan and second model, after the high-end Roadster sports car; a lower-price, higher-volume model is in the works).
As of May 2014, there are at least 90 Supercharger stations across the U.S., with all stations in the West Coast corridor supplied by solar power. Solar is the target source for all Supercharger stations, which Musk asserts will always be free for all Tesla owners to use.
Tesla’s earliest patent (out of 203 patents, with another 280 pending) expires in 2026 — at which point collaborations on cars at lower-than-luxury price points could put Tesla’s technology in the hands of significantly more climate-conscious drivers.