Hoping to speed development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, Toyota said Monday that it would offer thousands of patents on related technologies to rival automakers, for free.
The announcement, made at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, echoes a similar move by electric car maker Tesla in 2014, when Chief Executive Elon Musk made Tesla patents available to all, hoping to spur innovation in the electric vehicle world (and, perhaps, to draw publicity.)
Toyota has similar goals for the fuel-cell car market.
"At Toyota, we believe that when good ideas are shared, great things can happen," Bob Carter, senior vice president at Toyota, said 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 will make 5,680 patents available to automakers to build and sell their own fuel cell vehicles. Parts suppliers, energy companies and bus manufacturers can also use the patents, which remain royalty-free through 2020.
And 70 patents are directly related to hydrogen fueling stations, a move both Toyota and analysts say could spur the wider adoption of hydrogen electric vehicles.
"I think overall it makes sense," said Devin Lindsay, principle powertrain anaylst with IHS Automotive. "Right now the automakers all need to help each other, and more infrastructure is going to help kick-start the industry."
The patents also relate to Toyota's upcoming Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car, which is slated to hit the U.S. market in October and is already on sale in Japan for the equivalent of about $60,000. With a range around 300 miles, it can refuel at a hydrogen station in about five minutes.
Although Toyota's move Monday will help advance the development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, the automaker may not be sacrificing much in making its patents available.
"I don't think the technology that Toyota has is that groundbreaking," said David Cole, head of AutoHarvest Foundation, a nonprofit at Wayne State University in Detroit, and chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research. "It's not a patent issue."
Instead, the development of cost-effective hydrogen fuel cell vehicles has been stymied by the high cost of research and development, and by a shortage of brainpower necessary to figure out how to make the hydrogen fuel itself more energy dense, and therefore more efficient, Cole said.
This is one reason fiercely competitive automakers are eager to work together on fuel cell technologies. Honda, with its own hydrogen fuel cell car set for 2016, has partnered with General Motors on new fuel cell applications. Both companies lead the industry in fuel cell patents.
And Ford, Renault, Nissan, and Mercedes' parent company, Daimler, recently agreed to develop fuel cell technologies that all four companies would share.
"It's historic the amount of collaboration that's occurring," Cole said. "If automakers don't, we're not going to get down the fuel cell road as far and as fast as we like."
Toyota says it's been developing its fuel cell technology for the last 20 years. But Toyota knows that it can't sway the industry toward the widespread adoption of hydrogen as a fuel source alone.
"We believe that hydrogen electric will be the primary fuel for the next 100 years," Carter said. "Now, it's not going to happen overnight. By eliminating the traditional corporate boundaries, we can speed the metabolism of everyone's research and development and move into a future of mobility quicker more effecively and more economically."
Meanwhile, Hyundai has a hydrogen version of its Tucson crossover available for lease, and brands such as Volkswagen, Audi, and BMW have all shown prototypes and concept versions of hydrogen vehicles.
Automakers relish the idea of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for several reasons. Many consumers still have the psychological "range anxiety" regarding pure electric cars, despite claims by brands selling electric cars that a driver's typical commute is far shorter than the maximum range.
Fuel cell vehicles have a much longer range -- 300 to 400 miles is typical -- and can refill in a matter of minutes. Yet the smooth, quiet drivetrains of a fuel cell vehicle are very similar to an electric car. The key difference is the power source.
Rather than draw power directly from rechargeable batteries, the electric drivetrain in a hydrogen fuel cell combines hydrogen with oxygen inside a fuel cell, which creates electricity and emits only water vapor as "waste."
Those clean emissions make fuel cell vehicles zero emissions in the eyes of state and federal governments. This is another reason automakers are drawn to the promise of fuel cells.
By 2025, the state of California wants 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road and 15% of vehicles sold to be zero emission. This includes EVs, plug-in hybrids with limited electric-only ranges, and hydrogen vehicles. (Critics note that the process of manufacturing and distributing hydrogen does create some toxic emissions.)
But limited infrastructure has remained a key hurdle for automakers. At the 2014 L.A. Auto Show in November, VW debuted a version of its upcoming Golf SportWagen that runs on hydrogen.
Yet in launching the concept, the automaker cautioned, "Before the market launch a hydrogen infrastructure would have to be created: Not only a broad network of hydrogen fuel stations, but also the production of the hydrogen itself."
Currently, California has only 11 hydrogen refueling stations, though some analysts say the total could hit 40 within a year. But Toyota says it's looking big picture.
"This isn't a six-month or five-year play," Carter said. "This is where we see the automobile industry going for the next 100 years."