Climate

Other Car Companies Will Be Able To Use Toyota’s Hydrogen Fuel Cell Patents, Royalty-Free

CREDIT: AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi

In this photo taken Monday, Nov. 17, 2014, a Toyota Motor Corp.'s new fuel cell vehicle Mirai drives through its showroom test course in Tokyo.

Toyota has announced that it will allow its competitors to use any and all of its 5,680 patents for hydrogen fuel cell cars, a move the company hopes will jump-start the widespread commercial production of cars powered by zero-emission hydrogen gas.

Companies that manufacture and sell fuel cells will be allowed to use the patents royalty-free for the next five years, Toyota announced Monday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Of the nearly 6,000 patents, about 1,970 are related to the in-vehicle fuel cell stacks, 290 surround the technology of high-pressure hydrogen tanks needed to safely transport the fuel, and 70 relate to hydrogen production, according to Gizmodo.

If the move sounds familiar, that’s because it is very similar to what famously innovative electric car company Tesla Motors did this summer. In June, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that the company would let its competitors use its patents under what Bloomberg Businessweek called “open-source-inspired agenda” at Tesla. “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology,” Musk said at the time.

The reason both Toyota and Tesla would want competitors to use their technology is simple: without more production of these low-emission cars, there is little incentive to create the expensive infrastructure needed to make them mainstream. Electric cars need recharging stations; hydrogen cars need hydrogen gas filling stations. Without that infrastructure, it is unlikely that either electric or hydrogen cars would be able to compete with the massive gas-powered vehicle market.

For now, hydrogen and electric cars seem to be competing with each other for the title of “best environmentally-friendly vehicle.” Hydrogen cars, put simply, are run on hydrogen gas, a type of fuel touted by the U.S. Department of Energy as an “environmentally friendly fuel that has the potential to dramatically reduce our dependence on imported oil.” Electric cars, meanwhile, most often use electrical energy stored in batteries.

Both face their own unique challenges aside from a lack of refueling infrastructure. Electric vehicles can be expensive, and if the power charging the battery comes from a fossil fuel plant, some say that the lifecycle environmental and health damages of an electric vehicle can actually be greater than gasoline-powered cars. And hydrogen cars can have similar problems: As ClimateProgress’ Joe Romm has noted, truly “green” hydrogen is nearly nonexistent, and it would be more expensive to run one’s car on green hydrogen than gasoline.

As of now, transportation — the whole gambit of cars, trucks, trains, and planes — is the largest single source of air pollution in the country. Needless to say, air pollution can exacerbate respiratory conditions like asthma and bronchitis, and has been linked to cancer and cardiovascular disease.