Open source data has been beneficial to the tech community and consumers at large, helping advancement significantly by making access to existing technology both faster and more accessible.
Technological advancement is far more rapid when consumers who likely lack the financial resources to pay for pre-existing technology, have open, unencumbered access. As a result, society benefits- and the firm is paid in kind, in the form of good PR and a strengthened, expanding customer base.
Tesla: Paving the Way for Open Patents
In the automobile sector, Elon Musk is well-known for opening up his firm’s intellectual property to the world; patents to his electric car manufacturing firm Tesla Motors are openly available at no cost.
Musk clearly explained his aims in a blog post on Tesla Motors’ website.
“Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport,” Musk wrote in the blog post. “If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”
Musk hopes, by open sourcing this technology, that the electric car industry, both environmentally and economically viable, is bolstered. While it is becoming increasingly popular, it is still under severe pressure and competition from traditional car makers.
In a similar move, leading ‘traditional’ car maker Toyota, which also manufactures environmentally sustainable vehicles such as the hybrid Prius, has now opened up its patents for FCVs or Fuel Cell Vehicles through 2020 for open, free use.
What is a Fuel Cell Vehicle?
While eventually electrically powered, fuel cell vehicles are not powered by an external electric source. Fuel cells within the vehicle are devices that convert the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a chemical reaction with oxygen or another oxidizing agent.
They are not powered by external sources of electricity, as are Tesla vehicles or other electric motors, but have devices (fuel cells) on board that utilize hydrogen in a way that has a significantly lower impact on the environment.
Toyota Have Pulled a Tesla; What Now?
Opening up this technology is a major move on Toyota’s part. While fuel cell vehicles still have some impact on the environment, this is much lower than that of traditional vehicles. Very few other mainstream manufacturers are currently employing this technology in currently available vehicles – among those that have are Hyundai and Mercedes.
The downside to fuel cell vehicles is their economic viability; they are neither ‘profitable’ for car manufacturers to mass produce, nor for commuters to drive in terms of the money spent on fuel and maintenance.
Joseph Romm, a critic of hydrogen cars, devoted two articles in 2014 to updating his critique. He states that FCVs still have not overcome the following issues: high cost of the vehicles, high fueling cost, and a lack of fuel-delivery infrastructure.
In addition, he claims the vehicles are not entirely green “because of escaping methane during natural gas extraction and when hydrogen is produced, as 95% of it is, using the steam reforming process.”
For the most part, it is high manufacturing costs, transferred to the consumer who in the masses is unable to afford these vehicles. In addition, as Romm mentions, longer commutes or travels in these vehicles is rendered very difficult due to the absence of refueling opportunities; FCVs also have a significantly low return in terms of mileage on fuel; some estimates peg this at approximately 45%.
While Toyota’s 2014 offering, the Mirai, sold at a price of less than US$100,000, that amount is still significantly higher than what an average consumer can afford to spend on a car; this is not factoring in the subsequent cost of hydrogen refueling and the dearth of refueling stations.
Opening up the fuel cell technology, however, looks to be beneficial due to the fact that fuel cells have further applications, several of which are currently already under research; among these include power backups, lighting solutions, bicycles and motorbikes in the personal vehicle sector, farming and construction tools, and non-terrarian vehicles like submarines and aircraft as well.
While larger firms or labs are more likely to be conducting large scale research, personal research can provide valuable solutions for smaller-scale usage of fuel cell technology to help lessen or mitigate the already largely irreparable effect of fossil fuel use and greenhouse emission into the atmosphere, by substituting fuel cell technology.
FCVs may not be completely economically viable for either manufacturer or consumer just yet, but that is not the only sector fuel cell technology can have a lasting impact on.
Opening up this technology and making it free may be good PR for Toyota, certainly, but it is also a great leap forward for power and fuel solutions across sectors and scales.
Writer and communications professional by day, musician by night, Anuradha Santhanam is a former social scientist at the LSE. Her writing focuses on human rights, socioeconomics, technology, innovation and space, world politics and culture. A programmer herself, Anuradha has spent the past year studying and researching, among other things, data and technological governance. An amateur astronomer, she is also passionate about motorsport.
More of her writing is available here and she can be found on Twitter at @anumccartney.
(Image credit: Emran Kassim, via Flickr)