Toyota Frees Up Patents, Pushes For Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Future

January 5, 2015

With its upcoming 2016 Mirai sedan, Toyota is betting big on hydrogen fuel-cell technology—and a scenario that will include the hydrogen infrastructure that makes vehicles like it a convenient, viable option for those who want to drive free of tailpipe emissions.

Yet the costs are tremendous. In addition to the massive hit Toyota will take on the car itself (priced at $57,500, which is a fraction of it’s estimated to cost the automaker), there’s the daunting question of who might pitch in to help establish a hydrogen infrastructure.

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So it’s not all that surprising that Toyota is looking to spur investment from other companies in the technology. The automaker announced today at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, that it’s inviting the royalty-free use (contingent on a negotiated contract) of about 5,680 patents related to fuel-cell vehicles—including those pertaining to the 2016 Toyota Mirai.

That includes nearly 2,000 patents related to fuel-cell stacks—the core of a fuel-cell vehicle, where hydrogen is used to generate electricity that powers the wheels—as well as 290 patents on high-pressure hydrogen storage, 70 on hydrogen production and supply, and a whopping 3,350 on fuel-cell system software control.

Following Tesla, and a Silicon Valley approach?

The announcement bears some likeness to what the electric-car maker Tesla Motors did last year, in opening up its patents regarding its ‘Supercharger’ standard for fast-charging. That proposal is also contingent upon ‘good faith’ agreements with other companies.

Hydrogen fueling station at California State University, Los Angeles [photo: Axelle Bader]

Hydrogen fueling station at California State University, Los Angeles [photo: Axelle Bader]

Toyota says that it will make those fuel-cell patents available to automakers who plan to produce and sell fuel-cell vehicles—and to fuel-cell parts suppliers and energy companies.

In return, Toyota asks that those companies using its patents share their fuel-cell-related patents with Toyota under the same sort of arrangement.

“The first generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, launched between 2015 and 2020, will be critical, requiring a concerted effort and unconventional collaboration between automakers, government regulators, academia and energy providers,” said Toyota Motor Sales senior VP of automotive operations Bob Carter. “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.”

A different tack than with hybrid systems

Overall, it’s quite the turnaround for Toyota, if you compare it to the company’s coveted Hybrid Synergy Drive systems. Toyota has, since the development of the first Prius in the 1990s, been guarded with its hybrid drivetrain components and power software.

Will more fuel-cell-powered products give the infrastructure the kickstart it needs? Toyota has pitched in with loans and assistance for several initiatives, but at the moment in California there are only nine public stations and 13 research stations. At an estimated $2 million per fueling site, among other infrastructure hurdles, steps like this look critical to get more companies to ante up.


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