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Desperate Toyota does a Tesla

Let go to take control.

That’s what Elon Musk did with the patents on his Tesla brand of electric cars. That’s what Toyota has done now with its patents on fuel-cells, releasing 5,680 licenses for royalty-free use at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Tuesday. It said in a statement, “Toyota aims to go one step further as it aims to promote the widespread use of [fuel cell vehicles] and actively contribute to the realization of hydrogen-based society”, whose initial market introduction period it expects will last until 2020.

The release comes at the start of a year when the carmaker’s Mirai sedan is set to hit American and European markets. Mirai is Toyota’s first mass-market FCV. Fuel-cells power electric motors in cars by drawing on the energy released during a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, whose only other by-product is harmless steam. The Mirai can travel 650 km without refueling. Despite the glaring environmental benefits of using such a device, the FCV economy’s biggest stumbling block is the safe transportation of hydrogen from production units to supply stations. The gas has very low density, which means sufficient quantities can be stored only in pressurized containers, and reacts explosively with air.

Accordingly, of the 5,680 licenses released, 1,970 have to do with fuel-cell stacks, 3,350, with fuel-cell ‘system control technology’, 290 with high-pressure hydrogen tanks and 70 with hydrogen production and supply.

While electric vehicles like those manufactured by Musk’s Tesla Motors have already hit the road in many countries with reliable infrastructural support, FCVs are far behind. To date, the only other commercial FCV (apart from the Mirai) is Hyundai’s Tuscon/ix35, while Honda, Audi, Mercedes and Nissan have piloted concept vehicles. The biggest deterrent to wider uptake has been the cost: $700-1,100/kW in October 2014, second only to photovoltaics and wind turbines. A US National Renewable Energy Laboratory report in 2007 discussed why it was high:

the infrastructure needed to enable the widespread use of hydrogen as a transportation fuel is not available, resources are located outside demand areas, and the methods of producing hydrogen from renewable resources face many technical and economic hurdles. All these barriers must be overcome if hydrogen is to fuel a sustainable transportation economy.

On the bright side, the cost in 2002 was $5,500/kW. Moreover, Europe – one of the two big markets for FCVs – has decided to spend $1.58 billion (current prices) under its Fuel Cells and Hydrogen 2 Joint Undertaking program in the period 2014-2024.

As a result, Toyota’s decision is different from Tesla’s in terms of what it hopes to achieve: Tesla wanted its competition to organize itself so Tesla could challenge them on familiar terms. Toyota wants its competition to realize itself and so help spur the hydrogen economy – a far more ambitious goal. If not, market introduction of FCVs will extend way beyond 2020, when the royalty-free-use licenses expire.