Ford opens access to electric vehicle IP, for a fee

Companies developing electric vehicles will be able to access Ford’s library of over 1600 technologies for which it has obtained or applied for a patent

Ford has joined Toyota in opening its portfolio of patented technologies for electric vehicles to outside developers in a move which it states will help accelerate development in the field. The company has over 650 patents in the electric vehicles sector, with around 1000 pending applications.

Lincoln MKX
The Lincoln MKX Hybrid is among Ford’s electrified portfolio

Ford has six hybrid or fully electric vehicles in its portfolio: the Focus Electric, Fusion Hybrid, Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid, C-MAX hybrid, C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid and Lincoln MKZ hybrid. Its patented technologies include the first system to allow charge balancing at any point, rather than just when charging; the company claims this was the first technology to allow use of lithium-ion cells in cars. It also has a system to maximise energy recovered through braking, by improving the interplay between friction braking and regenerative braking at certain air temperatures; and a driving behaviour feedback interface, which monitors braking and accelerating and uses data to inform the driver how best to maximise charge or fuel consumption.

Anybody wishing to access Ford’s patents or applications will have to contact the company’s technology commercialisation and licensing office, or work through the automotive collaboration and licensing marketplace AutoHarvest. A fee will be payable to access the information. “Ford helped launch AutoHarvest as a founding member to enable efficient and transparent technology licensing across the automotive industry and beyond,” said Bill Coughlin, president and CEO of Ford Global Technologies.

“As an industry, we need to collaborate while we continue to challenge each other,” said Kevin Layden, director of Ford’s electrification programs. “The way to provide the best technology is through constant development and progress. By sharing ideas, companies can solve bigger challenges and help improve the industry.”

Industry reaction: Andrew Thompson, partner and clean-tech specialist at intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers

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.