Elon Musk plugs a Tesla Model S into a Supercharger (Image: deanslavnich on Twitter)Enlarge Photo
Last week, Tesla Motors and its charismatic CEO, Elon Musk, did something very, very unusual. After dropping cryptic hints about some "controversial" plans, Musk revealed that Tesla would make its patented electric car technology available to anyone, at no cost, with no threat of lawsuits, provided those using it acted "in good faith".
PC Magazine reports that two automakers have already approached the company for more details. Not surprisingly, the two are BMW and Nissan, both of which have expended significant resources to develop electric cars.
According to Reuters, Tesla's conversation with BMW took place last Wednesday, a day before Musk announced plans to open up Tesla's patent portfolio to collaborators and competitors alike. Though neither company has commented on the content of the closed-door talks, BMW issued a statement to say that "Both companies are strongly committed to the success of electro-mobility and discussed how to further strengthen the development of electro-mobility on an international level".
Nissan's discussions with Tesla are even vaguer: we only know that Nissan is "keen" to chat with the startup electric car company. Unnamed sources, however, insist that both BMW and Nissan are most interested in the technology that underlies Tesla's groundbreaking Supercharger network.
Like their parents and grandparents, the vast majority of today's drivers have never owned a car that didn't use gasoline. So, even though most of us understand the environmental problems associated with automobiles that run on fossil fuels, we also know that our cars do what we need them to do. They're not perfect, but we're comfortable with them, and we're loathe to change our ways.
Ultimately, electric car manufacturers have to create an alternative that's just as comfortable and familiar to us as our gas-powered cars -- an alternative that we can integrate seamlessly into our daily lives. We don't want to start a completely new routine, even if we know it's better for the planet. We want electric cars to be exactly the same and totally different, all at the same time.
There are at least five things preventing electric car manufacturers from achieving that goal:
1. Short battery range
2. High cost of electric car technology
3. Limited availability of charging stations
4. Slow charging times
5. Lack of universal charging standards
Numbers one and two will change over time. Battery technology is improving dramatically, with cheaper alternatives and economies of scale leading to reduced costs for manufacturers and consumers alike.
Number three isn't much of a concern, either. We already have an extensive electric grid in the U.S., it just needs to be adapted to accommodate charging stations.
The sticking points will be numbers four and five. Tesla has taken an early lead on reducing charging times, but it'll need to do much better. Even its Superchargers take thirty minutes to work their magic -- far longer than drivers spend at gas pumps. However, pooling resources with other automakers like BMW and Nissan could speed the development of charging technology, bringing faster charger to the public.
The real problem may be establishing universal charging standards. As we discussed last week, the company that controls charging standards has significant control over the industry as a whole.
Of course, at this early stage in the electric car industry's history, it's healthy to have debate and competition. But at some point, automakers will need to put their differences aside, take a seat at the bargaining table, and agree on a system that works for manufacturers and consumers of all stripes.
Can Tesla broker that deal? We can't say for sure, but it's in a good position to start the conversation.