Elon Musk's patent ambiguities

Sunday 31 December 2017

Electric carmaker Tesla has patented a battery-swapping system. Does this mean a reversal of its open source philosophy?

Illustration: Ritika Bohra

Elon musk has of late been much in the news—not that he is ever out of it. In recent weeks, the evangelist-inventor of electric cars has been in the spotlight as much for the latest rollouts from his iconic company Tesla as for weepy revelations about his personal life. In November, Musk unveiled Tesla’s first electric semi-truck which he claimed “will blow your mind clear out of your skull and into an alternate dimension”.

For millions of fans and customers, the surprise at the Los Angeles launch of the semi-truck was a new Tesla sports car. So Musk had everyone riveted. But for this column, the major development is something that has not caught the public eye. This is a new patent filed by Tesla for a battery-swapping system that can lift up an electric vehicle and change its battery pack in just 15 minutes.

The system, designed for Tesla’s Model S and Model X vehicles, relies on a mechanical lift that can raise the vehicle to a predetermined height to swap the batteries. It can work on its own or with help of human operators. Right now, Tesla’s supercharging stations take over an hour to charge a car. It is, therefore, a major step in the evolution of electric cars since, as the patent claims, “it would allow for almost nonstop travel during long road trips.”

The patent is what is proving to be a bit of a bother. In 2014, Musk had sent shock waves across the industry by freeing up Tesla’s patents (see `Tesla’s `insane’ move to free up patents', Down To Earth, 1-15 September, 2014). It was an unexpected move and unprecedented since competitors were given access to a portfolio of patents on advanced electric vehicle technology. Musk had explained at the time that Tesla Motors—it has since dropped Motors from its name—was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. So the firm would not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who “in good faith, wants to use our technology”.

Amidst the chorus of praise a couple of lone voices had been sceptical. Some had surmised that the patents were not all that valuable since rival electric carmakers such as Toyota were focused on hybrid vehicles and were not likely to take up Tesla’s generous offer. But who would decide if those seeking Tesla’s freed-up patented technology were acting in “good faith”? Since then there has been no word on who, if any, have sought the company’s knowhow in the past three years.

What is also interesting is Musk’s attitude to patents. In an interview in 2014 Musk revealed that when he started his first company, Zip2, he thought patents were great and had worked hard to get them. “And maybe, they were good long ago, but too often these days they serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors. After Zip2, when I realised that receiving a patent really just meant that you bought a lottery ticket to a lawsuit, I avoided them whenever possible.”

Which makes it rather curious that Musk, despite his view that patents are a legal quagmire has not stopped Tesla from piling them on. The battery-swapping system is but the latest in a pretty long list of patents. The question then: what is Elon Musk all about? Was the offer merely an image-building exercise? But he continues to maintain that “the fundamental intention of Tesla, at least my motivation, was to accelerate the advent of sustainable energy. That’s why I open-sourced the patents.”

Footnote: Tesla was founded by Nikola Tesla, a brilliant Serbian physicist, engineer and inventor, who died in penury after waiving royalties from his most valuable patent. Musk surely knows this.

(This article was first published in the December 16-31 issue of Down To Earth).

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  • Tesla was NOT founded by Nicola Tesla, but rather was named After him. And, though Mr. Tesla sadly at the end of his life was essentially destitute, he was the inventor of alternating current, an invention that made having power available the way we have it now... possible!

    So picking "Tesla" as a name for an "Electric" car company makes sense.

    Posted by: Orville Chomer | 7 months ago | Reply
  • battery is the key of electric carmaker. Also, it's the right decision of patent filed for battery-swapping system. In the future, the cost of the system, the demand of battery swapping and etc might be crucial.

    Posted by: Meiyu | 7 months ago | Reply
  • "Which makes it rather curious that Musk, despite his view that patents are a legal quagmire has not stopped Tesla from piling them on."

    So what do you suggest? That Tesla invents new things, does not get patents, let's other people reverse engineer their tech and patent it (which someone will), then sue Tesla for using their own inventions?

    Tesla is doing the only sensible thing and you know it. Stop trolling.

    Posted by: Terry | 7 months ago | Reply
  • Tesla was founded by Nicola Tesla??? What he founded his last name???

    You can file patents so and let others use it. Simple.
    If you don’t do that, others will file to and charge or sue for them

    So much for the article

    Posted by: Ouch | 7 months ago | Reply
  • Tesla was not founded by Nikolai Tesla but named after him. I stand corrected. But there was, indeed, a company set up during the Serbian inventor's time called the Nikola Tesla Company to develop and market his patents. I am an admirer of Elon Musk (see http://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/teslas-insane-move-to-free-up-patents-46054) but find his stance problematic since he believes that “receiving a patent really just meant that you bought a lottery ticket to a lawsuit, I avoided them whenever possible.”

    Posted by: Latha Jishnu | 7 months ago | Reply
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