Tesla isn’t like other car companies.
Ok, so we already knew that. But it was reconfirmed with company boss Elon Musk’s announcement that Tesla would be ‘opening its technology patents.’ The upshot is that it's becoming the first and only open-source car company; it's giving away their technology for anyone to use. Any other business that wants to make an electric car can use Tesla’s tech without ending up being buried in squillion-dollar lawsuits for infringing intellectual property. So, an automotive Linux, if you like.
The type of tech we’re talking about is the big stuff: the electronics behind the electric propulsion, the means of making batteries smaller, safer and more powerful and Tesla’s fast ‘superchargers’, some of which are being rolled out across the UK right now.
This sort of thing may be common in the tech world, but it’s right out of the box for the automotive industry. Car companies preciously guard their tech. Unless us car journos can find out about it first, everything stays top secret until a car goes onto the market. Suppliers are fired or fined if they spill the beans – and if any copyrights are infringed they can be ruthlessly pursued legally. They do it because they believe they can profit by being the first to market with something or do something better than the rest.
This isn’t Elon Musk’s game though. He recently told us that he sees Tesla as a catalyst for change in the car business. So if he pokes the big beast with a stick it will start thinking seriously about developing more sustainable methods of transport. And electric cars have some way to go. Out of the 90 million cars sold every year, far fewer than 1 per cent use battery power – whilst Tesla itself expects to sell around 35,000 cars in 2014.
So will Musk’s free-for-all accelerate EV sales? Probably not. This announcement got many tech bloggers feeling even warmer towards Tesla than they do already (and let’s face it, he gives them plenty of reason to) but it won’t change much.
Big car companies’ sluggish response to electric tech might frustrate the hell out of Musk but the reality is that most are already spending billions developing their own electric propulsion and connectivity tech, in partnership with global suppliers. Indeed, Mercedes and Toyota are already small shareholders in the business and Tesla itself has been talking to BMW about sharing tech on electric charging points.
But while the big players are unlikely to be dipping into the Palo Alto pot, there is the chance for start-ups and smaller outfits. Don’t forget that Tesla itself is still really a start up, albeit one that’s occasionally embarrassing the big boys.
Imagine a scenario where another unheard of company started making electric cars by piggybacking Tesla. Or a car maker from a rapidly developing market such as India, Brazil or Nigeria taking advantage? Or it hastened the development of fast charging points. Now that could be interesting. And it just may be be the real reason for Elon’s altruism.
Chas Hallett is the editor of Autocar