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Is Elon Musk About To Blow The Roof Off The Electric Car Industry?

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Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk at the wheel of a Tesla Roadster

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk at the wheel of a Tesla Roadster

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As high-tech and eco-friendly as electric cars may be, they're not an easy sell to consumers. Not only are they expensive -- considerably more expensive than comparably equipped gas-powered vehicles -- but shoppers also worry about battery range and about the time those batteries need for recharging.

According to our colleagues at Green Car Reports, Tesla CEO and entrepreneurial wunderkind Elon Musk is planning to address one of those concerns in a major way. And it could give the entire electric car industry a much-needed spark.

PATENTLY OBSTRUCTIVE

Musk isn't big on patents. We saw that last year, when he open-sourced his plans for the high-speed Hyperloop.

Of course, he's no dummy, either. He understands the value of intellectual property and the importance of protecting it. However, patent law -- like, say, franchise law -- can sometimes hurt the very industries it's meant to help, leaving start-ups stranded in the status quo. (Patent trolls don't help, either.)

One of Tesla's most important patents involves its well-known Superchargers, which provide enough juice for an electric car to travel 170 miles after 30 minutes of charging. Currently, Superchargers only work on Tesla vehicles. Is that about to change?

Maybe. Citing an article in Engadget, Green Car Reports notes that Musk has been toying with the idea of "doing something controversial". Over the weekend, the nature of that "something" became clear: Musk wants to share the specifications for his Supercharger system. That would allow other automakers to benefit from Tesla's technological success and, ultimately, encourage those automakers to design vehicles that can use the Supercharger network.

WHAT'S IN IT FOR HIM?

Elon Musk is a very wealthy man. (Not Larry Page wealthy, but down the line, who knows?) In recent years, he's helmed three successful companies, and since he's only 42, his prospects of doing so again are pretty good.

As such, Musk may not be entirely focused on the bottom line -- or at least, that's the appearance he'd like to give. When he speaks of not wanting the Supercharger network to be a "walled garden", he means that he wants to share it, to open it up. There's an element of altruism in those sentiments, but that's not all.

If automakers take up Musk on his offer and build cars to his charging specs -- either by licensing the technology or through a potential "patent giveaway" -- Musk wins in at least three important ways:

1. Tesla becomes the definitive leader in electric cars. If Musk & Co. set the standards for charging the batteries that make electric cars go, they win big. It that sense, Tesla would become a bit like Keurig, which doesn't make coffee, it makes the means of delivering coffee to millions of caffeine-hungry consumers. In both cases, the companies exert significant control over their respective industries because they control the tech specs. 

2. Tesla has help to develop its network of Superchargers. Musk doesn't want consumers to pay to use Superchargers. Instead, he wants other automakers who agree to use his Supercharger standard to help pay for expanding the Supercharger network. (Presumably, like Tesla, they'd build the cost of a lifetime's worth of charging into their vehicle prices.)  

3. Musk's legacy is secured. Whether Tesla itself becomes the dominant U.S. brand of electric cars is somewhat irrelevant. Providing the technology to power electric cars and encouraging the deployment of untold numbers of charging stations would lay a firm foundation for electric car adoption and cement Musk's legacy as one of the great innovators in the auto industry -- indeed, one of the great innovators, period.

For more in-depth discussion of this topic, including some of the Supercharger networks' technical specifications, visit our colleagues at Green Car Reports. 

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