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At its press conference at this year’s CES, Toyota has announced that it will open up its hydrogen fuel cell patent library to its competitors and collaborators.

On stage, accompanying Bob Carter, Toyota USA’s senior vice president in charge of automotive operations, was a production version of the Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell sedan.

According to Carter, Toyota has spent the last 20 years developing fuel cell technology to the point where it can release a practical car. By developing the technology fully in-house, the company has taken a “high risk gamble”, like the one it undertook in releasing the Prius hybrid.

Unlike, the Prius, which only relied on collaboration with Toyota’s various suppliers, making hydrogen a viable fuel for the future is a considerably more complex undertaking.

For it to work, there needs to be fuelling stations, as well as infrastructure to produce the gas and deliver it to its ultimate selling point. And to make the companies that do all three of those things viable there will need to be a larger quantity of fuel cell cars on the market.

To spur this along, the company is willing to grant royalty free use of its 5680 hydrogen fuel cell-related patents to any company involved in the creation and manufacture of fuel cell cars and components.

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Unlike a similar move by Tesla to open up its electric vehicle patent portfolio, Toyota’s royalty free period is limited to the “critical development stage” of the technology, which it has provisionally pegged to the end of 2020.

Carter described the company’s move as a “turning point in automotive history” and one that had “less to do with hydrogen fuel cell cars than the growth of a hydrogen society”. Toyota, he said, saw “higher societal value of sharing our IP” to help “speed the metabolism of everyone’s R&D”.

The company will enter into individual licensing agreements with interested companies and will ask, but not insist, that those companies also make their hydrogen fuel cell tech freely available to automobile makers and suppliers.

Currently Toyota has around 5680 fuel cell patents — 1970 of those relate fuel cell stacks, 290 for high-pressure hydrogen tanks and 3350 for drivetrain system software.

The Japanese giant also holds 70 patents related to hydrogen production and supply. These patents will be available for free in perpetuity. The company is also granting loans to companies involved in the development of hydrogen production and delivery infrastructure.

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Car Advice asked if the company would consider extending the royalty free period, to which Carter replied: “We haven’t made those decisions at this point in time. We’ve selected the end of 2020 because … these next five years will be the critical development stage.”

When we pressed Carter about what criteria Toyota will use to determine the end of this development stage, he responded: “We think that point that … the infrastructure will be start becoming a sustainable business in the Northeast Corridor [of the USA] and California, and that at point we have the potential of spreading [the technology] to more markets.”




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