Tesla Seems To Recognize That Its Own Patents Are Holding Back Innovation

from the because-that's-how-patents-work dept

While the details aren't entirely clear yet, there are reports that the company is likely to "open up" or "give away" some of its patents on its Supercharger system in an effort to create a standard that other electric car makers can use. Elon Musk has been hinting at doing something "fairly controversial" with the company's patents for a little while now. The really tragic thing is that this should not be controversial. Anyone who's studied the history of innovation knows how badly patents get in the way of standardization. There often is long and involved fights over how patents fit into standards, with debates about fees and "RAND" pricing. Fights break out over whose patents get included, and then giant bureaucracies spring up around who gets to manage various patent pools, and how money gets distributed. And all of it slows down the actual innovation process.

And this is a problem.

Hopefully, the rumors are accurate, and Tesla really is freeing up its patents, because Musk has always been a more visionary sort. He must realize that the business is selling the cars, and any advance that makes the cars themselves more useful makes them more valuable, and widespread infrastructure that helps his cars and which he doesn't have to pay for is only a good thing in the long run. For too long, the "typical" business wisdom from those who are too focused on permission-driven innovation is that you have to lock up everything. But toll booths create friction and slow down the opportunities for real innovation. It would be great to see Musk do "something controversial" like this, even if it's ridiculously depressing that this idea is considered even remotely controversial.

Monetizing each step of the process, even if it limits the overall market is what should be seen as controversial -- rather than sharing knowledge and encouraging others to build upon a shared standard that increases opportunities for the entire market.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Michael, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 11:06am

    If you pirate his designs, are you a Musk-rat?

     

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  2.  
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    Michael J. Evans, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 11:13am

    Just like basic Internet protocols

    The free to implement open infrastructure is critical to the Internet being what it is today. Proprietary protocols and the disaster of limited/no interoperability are a thing that was tried and which died out in favor of a platform that was common and had no barriers to entry.

    Standards are a lot less likely to have competitors when everyone can see (and even more so contribute to) the community efforts.

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 11:25am

    One of the big holdbacks today with electric cars is the lack of mileage in being able to travel long distances. Both the recharge wait as well as the lack of recharge stations prevents wholesale adoption by the public. Another is the high cost of battery replacement.

    If you were able to do away with those items, suddenly the public would be more amiable to adoption. New tech cars that don't depend on the present infrastructure all have this hold back. A couple of the car companies are planning on introducing new cars running on hydrogen. They are not likely to be adopted any more than electric cars for the same reasons.

    This is where Musk is coming from. If he doesn't have to pay to put in a nation wide recharge point for his cars, it is much more likely the public will embrace his products. Not to mention if he gets this done early enough he stands a great chance of it becoming a standard configuration. He would not have to redesign his plugs to fit someone's recharge point but rather all recharge stations would have his design that would automatic just fit.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 11:49am

    Visionary

    Musk is more than a great visionary, he is a great business man. I suspect one of the conditions for use of the Tesla patents will be the required compatibility with his supercharging stations, and possibility his battery design as well. Use of the super charing stations won't be free to owners of a competing model, giving Tesla a leg up in that market. Eventually, others will start to put supercharging stations in, which will lower Tesla's required capital costs.

     

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  5.  
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    Mason Wheeler (profile), Jun 10th, 2014 @ 11:50am

    Re:

    Not to mention if he gets this done early enough he stands a great chance of it becoming a standard configuration. He would not have to redesign his plugs to fit someone's recharge point but rather all recharge stations would have his design that would automatic just fit.

    Which really shouldn't be surprising or controversial at all. Afterall, gasoline-powered cars have had a completely standardized interface for "recharging" for decades, to the point where some manufacturers build upon it as a security feature.

    For example, my car won't open the gas tank inlet if what I'm pressing against it doesn't exactly fit the correct size for a gas nozzle, which I found out much to my chagrin when it refused to let me refuel at an older gas station with a slightly banged-up pump. In a minor panic (I still had a quarter-tank left) I took it to the nearest dealership for repairs, and the guy explained it's an anti-siphoning feature and I should just go to another gas station and it should work. And it did.

     

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  6.  
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    zip, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 11:50am

    proprietary madness

    I've got to wonder if Tesla's "charger" patents are really innovative in some way, or more like the way that cell-phone manufacturers (presumably) patented their battery dimensions and charger's interface just so that they would have a proprietary lock on the market and eliminate (non-license-fee-paying) aftermarket competitors.

    I know Tesla is a fairly new company, but it remains to be seen if they plan to follow the "cell phone model" and come out with constantly-changing battery designs and charger specs that are never backward-compatible with any previous model or with any other company. For Tesla to open up the company's patents (whether they're innovative or protective patents) is certainly a step in the right direction.

     

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  7.  
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    Mason Wheeler (profile), Jun 10th, 2014 @ 11:51am

    Re: Visionary

    That's an interesting idea. If they come up with a standard refueling interface for electric cars, do you think we'll start seeing ExxonMobil, BP, Arco and all the rest putting in recharge stations?

     

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  8.  
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    Dermot Gilley, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 11:53am

    There are patents and then there are patents ...

    Just step back for a while and look at what would happen if one company, say Toyota, owned the patent on diesel, another on gasoline. Then a third car manufacturer would make cars run on salad oil, the fourth one one kerosene. While at first in theory this looks like it's driving further innovation it would not, because then each fuel station would have to host a multitude of fuels instead of two or three (quite similar) kinds. Would Mercedes then have to also lwet everyone use their typical brand symbol, the star? No. There is a difference between enabler patents (for want of a better word) and feature patents (for want of a better word). And having everyone use the same charging technology, the same wall sockets etc. is an enabler that might propel electric cars towards the critical mass that's needed to get them into the mainstream market. There are other patents that set Tesla apart from its competitors that it not share (and vice versa). But the (maximum) width of cars should be standardized for example so that one knows what roads to build. That again is an enabler.

     

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  9.  
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    Mason Wheeler (profile), Jun 10th, 2014 @ 11:59am

    Re: proprietary madness

    I know Tesla is a fairly new company, but it remains to be seen if they plan to follow the "cell phone model" and come out with constantly-changing battery designs and charger specs that are never backward-compatible with any previous model or with any other company.

    That would be an amazingly stupid thing to do. You can get away with that on a cellphone, where everyone owns their own charger, but cars use common infrastructure.

    Think about it this way: If Ford or GM built a car whose gas tank inlet didn't fit a standard gas pump, would anyone buy it?

     

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  10.  
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    Michael, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 12:02pm

    Re: Re: proprietary madness

    If Ford or GM built a car whose gas tank inlet didn't fit a standard gas pump, would anyone buy it?

    Can I use it to transport my fusion reactor to my bridge?

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 12:05pm

    Re: Re: Visionary

    And they will all have some sort of "Try our new electron boost fueling station. Your vehicle will love it." phrase.

     

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  12.  
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    zip, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 12:15pm

    Re: Re: Visionary

    I think it's possible that a big company like Ford or GM will decide to get into the business and put out their own *proprietary* charger, and Tesla will be faced with a hard decision: keep going their own way (and turn off future customers) or switch to the other company's system (and turn off legacy customers).

    Many emerging technologies have often gone that route. Consider personal computers and VCRs, to name just two examples. The early leaders in these markets were small innovators who were quickly pushed aside by new competitors using a different (incompatible) format -- backed by established companies who had deeper pockets and more marketing clout.

     

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  13.  
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    Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), Jun 10th, 2014 @ 12:31pm

    Re: Re: Visionary

    I don't think oil companies would put charging stations - and remember most gas stations are franchises owned by small businesses, using the Exxon/BP/whoever name.

    However, power/utility companies might want to get into the game. Duke, ConEd, FirstEnergy, whoever has a stake in selling electricity just might build some.

     

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  14.  
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    andypandy, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 12:44pm

    Re:

    How old is Tesla not yet 10 years i believe...Everyone expects them to suddenly supply everything everyone wanted. Damn the day the range increases to 1000 miles they will just say they don't accept that millage as they want to be able to drive from one cost to the other thought having a half hour break every 10 hours.

    I remember in one comment where someone had the stupidity to say they do not want to have a 30 minute break every 500 miles to recharge, not only is that unsafe for other road users but it is a crime to drive when tired and can be used to arrest you if it results in an accident. The charging system will force people to rest for a while during long drives.

     

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  15.  
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    zip, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 12:44pm

    Re: Re: proprietary madness

    Had they chosen to, Ford or GM could easily have built their own gas stations in the early days (especially since none existed) using not only proprietary pump nozzles, but proprietary fuel as well. And it would have easily worked as a business model, if a car could only get fuel at 25% or 30% of gas stations (which would be a big improvement for many present-day "company cars").

    To bring up cell-phones again, I'd say that (at least in a city) there are about as many gas stations as cell-phone towers. If you have, let's say, a Sprint telephone, it needs to connect to a Sprint tower. There might be a AT&T or Verizon tower that's closer and has better reception, but your Sprint telephone will ignore it.

    The same condition could conceivably exist with proprietary gas stations, and, as with cell-phones, you'd only get into trouble out in the most remote areas, where only one company might operates.

     

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  16.  
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    Bill Jackson (profile), Jun 10th, 2014 @ 12:50pm

    Patent access.

    Yes, Musk is a visionary. One has only to look at two example, one very recently and the other 100 years ago.
    First, I refer to the additive printer patents, whose holders held up, litigated, lawyers lettered and otherwise enganged in barratry for the last 15 years. They tried to keep all of additive printing to themselves - then the patents expired and look at all the additive printers.

    The same with the Wright Brothers who blocked aviation innovation for many years on the same basis. Then the TV patents, the Radio Patents and then the cell patents, all need to be relegated to their own individual dark ages....

    Why no internet patents blocked us all? Tim Berners Lee was another visionary, apart in time, but brethren of ideas.

    Musk needs to lockup Quebec Lithium supplies because the Quebec Government can give him cheap electricty to build an integrated mega battery factory next to a large lithium deposit = Earth to batteries = to cars even

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 12:57pm

    Re: Re: Re: Visionary

    "- and remember most gas stations are franchises owned by small businesses, using the Exxon/BP/whoever name."

    Let's not forget that there was once a time when one company -- Standard Oil - owned (not franchised, but owned) virtually all retail sales outlets in the US (as well as all upstream production).

    Although Standard Oil was forcibly broken up by federal anti-trust laws (and a non-sympathetic Supreme Court) I can't imagine anything similar ever happening today, an era when corporations literally own the government.

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 1:31pm

    Decisions like that would make me far more likely to buy a Tesla. In fact, I'm heading top their web site now. :)

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 4:56pm

    Re:

    "He would not have to redesign his plugs to fit someone's recharge point but rather all recharge stations would have his design that would automatic just fit."

    They need a standard battery and plug. Lets skip the recharge and do an exchange instead. Here are my dead batteries and ten dollars. Thank you for putting in the charged batteries for me.

     

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  20.  
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    Pseudonym, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 5:01pm

    Re: Visionary

    One of the thing that strikes me about this is the amount of time that Musk "held" these patents is for exactly the amount of time that they needed to be held to serve their legitimate purpose (so that he could get the product on the market), and no longer. That is patents done right.

    If you hold and enforce your patents longer than that, it's a clear sign that your product failed.

     

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  21.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 7:33pm

    Re: Re: Re: Visionary

    I thought Nissan (and a few others) have J1772, while GM (Volt and Spark) used something similar, but not the same. The L3 charging is CHAdEMO, and is different for all cars.

    And the Tesla is just different than all of those plugs - but what makes the Tesla special is that its plug is cheaper and has the sensors to open the charging cap; where the other cars are expensive plastic with no sensors to open the charging cap.

     

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  22.  
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    Michael, Jun 11th, 2014 @ 8:06am

    Re: Re: Re: proprietary madness

    Ford or GM could easily have built their own gas stations in the early days

    Gasoline is a by-product of the kerosene manufacturing process.

    Part of the reason automobiles were successful is that they ran on what was effectively waste at the time. An automobile that did not take advantage of the extraordinarily inexpensive and common fuel source would have been unlikely to overtake the use of horses.

    A cheap, universal pump to get the gasoline out of barrels and into the tank of an automobile was very quickly invented. From that point forward, it seems pretty likely that anyone purchasing an automobile would have the same reaction to a proprietary filler nozzle we would have today: "Why would you do that? I'll just buy a car from someone else."

    Add to that the fact that in the early days of automobiles, running a multi-state business in the US that was not hooked to train tracks was a huge mess because transporting things was crazy complicated before there were - you know - fuel trucks to move the crap around.

     

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  23.  
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    alanbleiweiss (profile), Jun 12th, 2014 @ 10:42am

    Rumor is true - new announcement from Tesla

     

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