Musk’s altruistic assertions aside, the long-term future of Tesla, even as it expands its model line downscale, depends on a further broadening of the skinny base of electric-vehicle sales beyond rich people who buy them as sporty and green-tinted playthings. If sharing old technologies will help in that regard, Tesla has little to lose. For any Tesla competitor to capture the masses, electric stalls must be easier for people who live in apartments and condos to access.
And make no mistake: Tesla isn’t standing still, so its old patents are only going to be of so much use to any rival. “You want to be innovating so fast that you invalidate your prior patents,” Musk wrote on his blog in announcing this move.
Besides, so far, Tesla’s big advantage hasn’t been in its electric-vehicle battery systems per se, but in arenas such as appealing design, high-quality manufacture and effective marketing featuring Musk himself at the center of the Tesla universe. The key to its success as a vehicle designer and manufacturer has been Tesla’s ability to focus only on electric vehicles and to optimize everything around making them work well, and no other automaker is likely to duplicate that laser-like concentration anytime soon. Or to bankroll such a venture endlessly in the face of marketplace nonchalance, the way Musk did for years.
What’s more, Toyota let all sorts of rivals come in and look at its factories over the years, but none has ever been able to match the efficiency of the vaunted Toyota Production System. Toyota kept ahead of its competitors in manufacturing, and its recent marketplace travails haven’t had anything to do with vehicle quality.
This, ultimately, is a strategy of convenience. Would Musk release all his patents to the purview of rival Virgin Galactic and let Richard Branson, who’s competing with Musk to establish a viable space-flight business, cherry-pick the technologies and innovations he likes? Probably not.
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