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Guest opinion: Ford launches licensing initiative to promote electric cars

Author: Andrew Thompson; partner and clean-tech specialist at intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers.

Ford is the latest vehicle manufacturer to give the rest of the industry access to its patent portfolio as part of a move to stimulate the electric car market. However, this time around, rivals and market entrants will be expected to pay a licence fee for the privilege.

With one fully electric vehicle – the Ford Focus Electric – and other hybrid models available, Ford’s decision to open up its patent portfolio is a positive step that is intended to encourage innovation. In particular, the company will be hoping that this activity will help to solve technological barriers that have hindered take-up of electric cars to date; issues such as the lack of infrastructure to support their use and the limited range they can travel between battery charges.

The move comes almost a year after Tesla opened up its patent portfolio to promote the advancement of electric vehicle technology and while there are some similarities with the action now being taken by Ford, there are some significant differences too.

In the words of its CEO, Elon Musk, Tesla’s move was made in the ‘spirit of the open source movement’. Essentially, any company is free to use its patents without requesting permission and without incurring a fee, as long as the company deems they are acting in ‘good faith’. By contrast, Ford’s move is far more controlled. In practice, it represents a cleverly-marketed licensing programme and crucially, Ford’s ownership of its patented technologies remains firmly ring-fenced.

While the fee for licensing one or more of Ford’s 650 electrified vehicle patents or 1,000 pending patent applications has not been published, the decision to publicise access to such innovation is bound to be viewed positively in a market where there is much unrealised commercial potential. In particular, it means that smaller technology companies, working on peripheral solutions that could help to make electric cars more viable in the future, can now gain access to technologies that would previously have been blocked to them.

Despite this, Ford’s move is far from altruistic and it is clearly motivated by a desire to position its own patented technologies ahead of those of its rivals on the road to standardisation and to generate income in the meantime. While some common standards are emerging in relation to certain technologies, there is still no over-arching standard in place for electrified vehicles and therefore, there is still much for the rival manufacturers to play for.

In a related move earlier this year, Toyota opted to make more than 5,000 fuel cell-related patents freely available as part of a move to kick-start the hydrogen fuel car market.

Patents have long played an important role in helping innovators develop commercial market opportunities and the steps being taken by car makers like Tesla and Ford to share their technological know-how, albeit on different terms, only serves to emphasise this point.

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