Print Edition: June 18, 2014
Half a dozen of us were sitting on the patio, shooting the breeze over a bottle of wine and watching the stars come out, when someone asked what we should each be doing to make the world a better place.
“I’d buy an electric car if they weren’t so damn expensive,” someone said, and there was a susurrus of disappointed agreement. It went without saying that none of us could afford the $80,000 price tag of a Tesla, the only fully electric car currently on the market.
That was on Wednesday. On Thursday, Tesla Motors released its patents — a move that has shaken the transportation industry and has set the internet abuzz. In a June 12 blog post titled “All Our Patent Are Belong to You,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk stated all of the company’s patents are now publicly available and Tesla will not pursue intellectual property lawsuits against anyone who chooses to use their technology.
Musk’s move is not unprecedented, but it is unusual. Altruists occasionally offer world-changing technologies as their gift to the world, like Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web and refused to patent it or receive any royalties. Jonas Salk, an American doctor, also famously refused to profit from his discovery of a polio vaccine.
“There is no patent,” he replied, upon being asked who would own the vaccine’s patent. “Could you patent the sun?”
In an age of capitalism when everything has a price tag and corporate secrets are guarded like gold, this kind of altruism is rare and beautiful. Musk’s move is especially fitting considering Tesla Motors’ namesake — Nikola Tesla, an eccentric Serbian-American inventor who, among his prolific list of inventions, allegedly discovered a method of collecting free, renewable energy from Earth’s ionosphere. The project was shut down by financier J.P. Morgan, one of his backers, who was outraged at the thought of developing a source of energy that he couldn’t profit from. Although Tesla died in 1943, Tesla Motors has carried on his legacy by developing the electric car industry based on his electric motor. And now, they continue to do so by sharing their technology with others with no expectation of compensation, just as Nikola Tesla wanted to share free energy with the world.
Musk’s decision to release Tesla Motors’ patents isn’t entirely altruistic, however. The company is working to create an enormous battery factory that could manufacture power sources for a global fleet of cars. If the electric car takes off, Tesla Motors could stand to monopolize the new equivalent of the fuel industry.
But Musk’s move could still be one of the best things to have happened to the environmental movement in years. Companies like Ford now have no excuse to not develop electric vehicles. The technology exists; the patents are free; and, with approximately two billion cars currently on the road and 100 million more being produced every year, we can’t deny that the world desperately needs to quit its fossil fuel addiction.
What would it take for the electric car to catch on? As my friend on the patio said, it’s the price that’s stopping us. If manufacturers like Toyota or Mazda begin to create affordable electric car models for the middle class, it could finally hit the mainstream. In our post-environmentalist culture, being “green” is more fashionable than serious: we take trendy canvas bags to the grocery store to reassure ourselves how environmentally conscientious we are, but choose to buy kiwis from Chile anyway. The electric car could ride that eco-chic trend and be the new yoga, the new vegan. In 10 or 15 years, maybe it’ll be gauche to have a car that runs on gasoline. Instead the streets will be full of clean, sleek cars that silently roll up to the charging stations available on every corner – all because Tesla Motors decided to share the rights to electric car technology.
Call me naïve, but I hope Musk has set an example. Maybe he’ll start a new movement of corporate altruism — CEOs, engineers, and inventors sharing their discoveries and patents with each other, just because they can. Wouldn’t that be an amazing world?
Mr. Tesla would be proud.