LAS VEGAS—Toyota Motor Corp., the auto industry's loudest advocate for hydrogen-fueled vehicles, said it won't enforce more than 5,600 patents it owns on hydrogen fuel-cell technology through 2020, allowing rivals to reap the fruits of its research royalty-free, including plastics-intensive systems.
The move mirrors a step last year by Tesla Motors Inc., which opened its book of patents to spur adoption of battery electric vehicles.
The two companies were once partners in the development of battery EVs, with Toyota buying a 2.4 percent stake in Tesla in 2011 and agreeing to buy battery packs from Tesla for an electric version of the RAV4 crossover. But they parted ways as Toyota, a pioneer of gasoline-electric hybrids, began to look more toward fuel-cell vehicles rather than battery EVs as the vehicle of the future.
Now as Toyota prepares to sell the Mirai—a sleek, hydrogen-fueled sedan that is due to arrive in the U.S. this fall—it's betting that sharing the technology can broaden industry interest in fuel cells and help hydrogen become a viable alternative to gasoline. Toyota says it will sell the Mirai for $57,500; federal and California incentives of about $13,000 will lower the price to consumers.
The two biggest obstacles to fuel cells have long been development costs and the lack of a fueling infrastructure. There are only about a dozen public hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S., but if companies license Toyota's patents to put fuel cells into cars, trucks and buses—and supplement Toyota's investments in hydrogen infrastructure, as Honda has agreed to do—development of fueling stations could follow more quickly.
“The first generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicles launched between 2015 and 2020 will be critical, requiring a concerted effort and unconventional collaboration,” Bob Carter, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.'s senior vice president of automotive operations, said in a statement. “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.”
The list of 5,680 patents made available by Toyota includes 1,970 patents related to the fuel cell “stack,” which uses an electrochemical reaction to break apart molecules of hydrogen gas and release electricity.
Each stack has a polymer membrane at the center of each individual cell within the entire fuel cell engine.
It also includes 3,350 patents on the software used to control the fuel cell system, 290 patents related to hydrogen storage tanks and 70 patents for hydrogen production and supply.
Toyota's tank has both a nylon inner liner and a carbon fiber structure.
Toyota said that the patents for vehicles will be available for royalty-free licenses through 2020, while the patents for hydrogen production and supply will be free to use indefinitely.
Toyota announced its decision Monday at the International CES convention in Las Vegas. Long a showcase for video games and gadgets, CES has in recent years attracted technology-minded automakers such as BMW, Ford and Mercedes-Benz, which use the event to show off self-driving vehicle technology and smartphone apps.