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Toyota, Eyeing Collaboration, Offers Royalty-free Use of its Hydrogen Fuel Cell Patents

Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., announces access to Toyota's fuel cell patents at the International CES in Las Vegas on Jan. 5, 2015.
(Photo: Business Wire)

LAS VEGAS, January 5, 2015—On the eve of the 2015 International CES in Las Vegas, Toyota announced that it will make available more than 5,600 fuel cell and related patents for royalty-free use in an effort to spur the global development and introduction of innovative fuel cell technologies. The car maker will invite royalty-free use of approximately 5,680 fuel cell-related patents held globally, including critical technologies developed for the new Toyota Mirai, a hydrogen fueled, mid-sized, four-door sedan with front wheels driven by an electric motor.

By eliminating traditional corporate boundaries, Toyota is looking to “speed the metabolism of R&D” and enable the auto industry to move into the future of mobility more quickly, effectively, and economically, said Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations at Toyota Motor Sales, USA Inc., in a presentation to the press on the day the before the opening of the consumer electronics show.

"Sometimes, change can happen quickly," said Carter. "Other times, change takes persistence, a long view, and unconventional methods. But mostly, we believe real change requires collaboration."

Toyota’s announcement follows a similar decision by Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk last June to open-source his company’s patents relating to battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs) in a bid to enable the collaborative advancement of zero-emissions technology for the automotive industry. According to Toyota officials, it represents the first time that Toyota has made its patents available free of charge and reflects the company’s aggressive support for developing a hydrogen-based society.

Carter referenced a story told by Michio Kaku, an American professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, who spoke before him at the conference. Kaku said that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, two giants of American innovation with markedly different views on the future of the American automobile industry, were able to maintain a friendly relationship despite their disagreements.

"You'd think they’d be rivals," said Kaku. "But no, they collaborated. And then one day, they made a bet." Their bet, he said, was on what energy source would power automobiles over the next 100 years. Ford bet on gasoline, disagreeing with Edison’s view that electricity would win out.

The story is relevant, Carter said, because "our announcement today is about predicting our future, and how we get there. And how we get there has a lot to do with his story about how that friendly wager took place. Its a story of how competitors can also be collaborators.

"Mr. Ford was correct: Gasoline has been the primary fuel for the first 100 years of the automobile," he continued. "But technically, Mr. Edison was also correct: The electrification of the automobile is already well on its way. Evidence the beginning, and now-mainstream acceptance, of Prius and the legions of gas-electric hybrids that have followed. We believe that hydrogen-electric will be the primary fuel for the next 100 years."

One of the challenges that had continually vexed Toyota’s fuel cell engineers, Carter said, was finding a way to ensure that a vehicle could be started in extremely cold environments, such as those that often occur in various regions of North America. The solution, he said, came from numerous software and hardware patents that worked in concert in a unique voltage boost converter system. Today, the Toyota Mirai (the name means "future" in Japanese) is capable of starting at temperatures as low as 30 degrees below zero. But in addition to enabling the vehicle to start in frigid temperatures, the boost converter allowed engineers to reduce the size, weight, and cost of the fuel cell stack.

Being able to get to work every morning in the dead of winter is one thing, Carter said, but living through an extended power outage for days on end can be quite another. "The Mirai is capable of supplying enough energy to power your home essentials, as well as your consumer electronics, in an average house for up to a week in an emergency," he said. "Think of it as having an electric generator enclosed in your garage with six feet of snow and 30 below outside, and zero emissions to worry about on the inside."

The patents that were instrumental in enabling the Mirai’s cold starting capabilities—along with many other patents that have yet to be used—are merely a first chapter in what can be accomplished through collaboration, according to Carter.

"Hopefully, by sharing these patents with others, new fuel cell components and systems can be refined and improved to increase performance, reduce costs, and attract a much broader market of buyers," he said.

Meanwhile, Toyota is equally committed to doing "everything possible" to kick-start the development of a hydrogen re-fueling infrastructure. "Very simply, we cannot have the car without the re-fueling stations," Carter said. Toyota's efforts in this area have involved what it termed "substantial" financial support for the development of a hydrogen fueling infrastructure in California and the northeastern United States. The company announced a $7.3 million loan to FirstElement Fuels in May of last year to support the operations and maintenance of 19 hydrogen fueling stations across California. And in November 2014, Toyota announced that its vision of a "Hydrogen Society" would expand beyond the borders of California. Toyota Motor Sales and Air Liquide will collaborate to develop and supply a phased-in network of 12 dedicated hydrogen stations in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, Carter said.

"With these commitments, Toyota will direct a large portion of Mirai's global production over the first few years to these California and Northeast regions," he added. "Our global production volume will steadily increase from about seven hundred units in 2015 to the tens of thousands in the 2020s. By that time, we believe that fueling infrastructure will reach sustainable growth in key regions as a business model."

Toyota’s patent list is reported to include approximately 1,970 patents related to fuel cell stacks, 290 associated with high-pressure hydrogen tanks, and 3,350 related to fuel cell system software control. Also on the list are some 70 patents relating to hydrogen production and supply.

The hydrogen fuel cell patents will be made available to automakers who will produce and sell fuel cell vehicles, as well as to fuel cell parts suppliers and energy companies who establish and operate fueling stations, according to Toyota. The patents will be available through the initial market introduction period, which Toyota anticipates will last until 2020. Companies that are working to develop and introduce fuel cell buses and industrial equipment, such as forklifts, are also covered. Toyota will evaluate, on a case-by-case basis, requests from parts suppliers and companies looking to adapt fuel cell technology outside of the transportation sector.

Carter closed with a quote from President Abraham Lincoln. "The best way to predict the future is to create it," he said. "And that’s what we are doing at Toyota."

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