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The Great Fuel Cell Challenge: Will Toyota’s 5,600 Free Patents Change the Green Car Game?

Posted By Paul Tate, January 20, 2015 at 2:42 PM, in Category: Sustainability

Just when you'd got used to the idea of plugging your new electric car into a charging station for an hour or so before electro-gliding into the wild blue yonder, along comes another fuel-efficiency paradigm for the future of the auto industry that threatens to upset the electric vehicle bandwagon. 

Or will it?

Earlier this month, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Japan’s Toyota, the world’s largest vehicle maker, announced that it will allow royalty-free use of around 5,680 patents relating to its hydrogen fuel cell technology for the development of next generation, environmentally-friendly cars.

Hydrogen fuel cells are often regarded as the ultimate in green power as they are driven by the basic chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. The only emission from the exhaust – is water.

Toyota’s fuel cell vehicle (FCV) patent release, similar to U.S.-based Tesla’s opening up of its patent portfolio on electric vehicle technology last June, is designed to help kick-start the development of a global fuel cell vehicle industry.

"By allowing royalty-free use of FCV-related patent licenses,” said the company in a statement, “Toyota is going one step further as it aims to promote the widespread use of FCVs and actively contribute to the realization of a hydrogen-based society."

The patent trove consists of 1,970 patents related to fuel-cell stacks; 3,350 on  fuel-cell system control technology, 290 related to high-pressure hydrogen tanks, and 70 on hydrogen refueling stations. The cost-free licenses will be allowed "through the initial market introduction period" of fuel cell vehicles (FCV), which Toyota expects to last until around 2020.

“At Toyota, we believe that when good ideas are shared, great things can happen,” said Bob Carter, a senior vice president at Toyota, before the announcement. “The first generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, launched between 2015 and 2020, will be critical, requiring a concerted effort and unconventional collaboration.”

Toyota, of course, has a direct sake in this business. In mid-December, the company launched its own mass-market fuel cell vehicle called the Mirai. The 4-door sedan will cost around $57,000 and travel about 400 miles without refueling, something like three times further than most electric cars. The tank can also be filled in just a few minutes at a hydrogen pump, much like traditional petrol vehicles.

So far, the new model has done well. Toyota says it's been swamped by demand since the Mirai’s launch. The company expected to sell only around 400 of its FCV cars in the first year. But it has already taken orders for 1,500 within the first month, many from Japanese government agencies and corporate fleets. The car will also hit U.S. and some European markets, including Britain, Germany and Denmark, later this year, says the company.

Not to be outdone, and amidst a flurry of announcements of new electric and hybrid vehicles from U.S. manufacturers at last week’s Detroit auto show, Japanese competitor Honda also unveiled a new, exotic-looking hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, called the FCV Concept, which is scheduled for introduction to the U.S. in 2016.

So, is this open, more collaborative development focus on hydrogen fuel cells going to rock the electric vehicle boat just when it’s starting to gain market momentum?

Well, Tesla founder and passionate electric vehicle advocate Elon Musk, for one, is not impressed.

At a news conference during last week’s Detroit event, Musk made his views very plain. "I just think they're extremely silly," he proclaimed.

According to reports, Musk argued that hydrogen acts as an energy storage unit, not a source of it, making it impractical for powering vehicles, adding that extracting hydrogen from water is "an extremely inefficient" process.

"If you're going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is just an extremely dumb one to pick," he added. "The best-case hydrogen fuel cell doesn't win against current batteries. So obviously it doesn't make sense. That will become apparent in the next few years. There's no reason for us to have this debate."

Nevertheless, Japanese carmakers aren’t the only global auto brands exploring alternative FCV technologies.

Over the last year or so, Honda has partnered with General Motors on new fuel cell research. Ford, Renault, Nissan and Daimler/Mercedes recently agreed to develop shared fuel cell technologies. Hyundai has a hydrogen version of its Tucson crossover vehicle on lease. And German giants Volkswagen, Audi, and BMW have all revealed various prototypes and concept versions of hydrogen vehicles.

The collaborative battle lines for the future of more energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly vehicles are now being drawn.

Category: Sustainability
Written by Paul Tate

Paul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor with Frost & Sullivan's Manufacturing Leadership Council. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors, the Council's annual Critical Issues Agenda, and the Manufacturing Leadership Research Panel. Follow us on Twitter: @MfgExecutive

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