Kickstarting the electric car industry

24 June 2014

Interview with

Mark Peplow, Science Journalist

Now news that could herald a breakthrough for the development of electric tesla electric carvehicles which have been slow to catch on because they can't go far without having to be charged.

One of the pioneers in the field, the American company Tesla, has announced it won't prevent other companies using its exclusive patents. That means others will be able to use the same technology and, if they develop it, it could mean many more electric cars on the road.

Chris Smith spoke to science journalist Mark Peplow...

Mark -   Well, last week, we've got some news that could really help to kick-start the market for electric cars.  One of the world's leading electric vehicle makers, Tesla which is based in California has opened up its patent portfolio so that any manufacturer can use its technology without fear of courtroom battles.  Now, given that companies routinely fight tooth and nail to protect their patents, this might sound quite weird.  But it could make really good business sense for Tesla because it could accelerate the uptake of electric vehicles.

Chris -   But I was going to say, why have they done this because this does seem a rather ridiculous strategy if you spend a lot of money putting these patents in place in the first place.  To then just dismantle them seems very counterintuitive.

Mark -   It's a strategy that you don't often see, but the reason is, Tesla needs to grow the market for electric cars.  Now at the moment, it doesn't have a huge amount of competition with other electric vehicle makers.  Tesla has been at the forefront of developing technology to overcome a couple of the key barriers to people using electric cars.  Drivers are worried about their limited range and the time that it takes to recharge electric batteries and indeed, whether they can even find anywhere to charge up once they're on the road.  So, Tesla has been improving battery technology to give the cars a range of up to 300 miles and it's been building network of about 100 super charger stations across America with more to follow.  They can recharge about half the battery in just 20 minutes, giving you an extra 150 miles.  The refill is absolutely free because many of the stations are powered by solar panels on the roof.  Now, many of Tesla's 200 or so granted patents relate to this supercharger stations.  And the hope is that allowing other car manufacturers to come in and use that technology off their vehicles, Tesla's system can become the industry standard.  So, you get more companies using these stations, more demands for cars, more stations and that bigger network makes recharging more convenient for drivers.  So, this is sort of synergy to just try and grow the whole market.

Chris -   So, is this a shot in the dark, this whole idea about dropping patents like this or is there some kind of precedent?  Have any other industries or other manufacturers done this before and seen it work?

Mark -   There's a really good recent precedent actually.  Think about how Google made its android software free for anyone to use and adapt.  That helped to insure that the market for mobile devices continued to grow and importantly, its search engine was integral to those devices.  So, there are already signs that Tesla's move could pay off in a similar way because it's been discussing in the past week, technology partnerships with BMW and Nissan.  It's also in the midst of looking for a site for a new battery factory.  It's planning to build a $5 billion lithium-ion battery factory by 2020.  It will be the biggest in the world and it aims to make half a million car battery packs a year which is more than the total global production today.  So, getting others to adopt their technology creates a bigger market for that supply.

Chris -   So, how do they manage to pack so much charge into these batteries?  What is their secret technology that they're releasing now?

Mark -   The car's batteries charge and discharge using direct current, but the electricity in your home, that's alternating current.  So, when you plug an electric current at home, it flows through an on-board rectifier that converts AC to DC so that the battery could charge.  Rectifiers are quite heavy and they emit a lot of heat and that limits how many rectifiers a car can carry.  So the point is, as a supercharger station, that is no problem.  They stack up a dozen big rectifiers with all the cooling that they need and they deliver a much more powerful flow of DC current directly to the car's battery, through a really chunky wire.  It's like a huge fireman's hose basically.  And that effectively allows you much faster charging.

Chris -   Ingenious, and what do the industry commentators, other people, what do they think about this?  Do they think it's a goer?  Will it fly?

Mark -   Interestingly, when they first announced this, the share price of Tesla initially dropped slightly.  But as soon as people started to realise what the implications were, it has shot up ever since.  So overall, analysts are quite optimistic.  They also point out that Tesla wasn't being entirely altruistic.  It's been exploiting this technology quite a while.  So by the time other companies integrate this with their own cars, Tesla will presumably have made further advances and will  maintain its lead on the sort of technology.

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