Tesla accelerates race toward open-source cars

Tesla accelerates race toward open-source cars

Summary: Linux and open source have long played a major role in cars' electronics, but now Tesla is taking open-source automobiles to a whole new level — by setting free its electric car patents.


Tesla's CEO Elon Musk shocked both the technology and automobile industries when it announced that it was going to open-source its electric car patents. Can open-source cars be far behind? 

Not many people outside of the car industry know it, but open source and Linux have long been under automotive hoods. Indeed, last year I predicted that 2014 would be the year of the Linux car.

Tesla at speed
Open source-powered Tesla cars are charging to you.

The Automotive Grade Linux (AGL) organization, a Linux Foundation sub-group, is providing a common operating system and application programming interfaces (APIs) for car information and entertainment (infotainment) systems. Simultaneously, and in partnership with AGL, the non-profit automotive industry GenIVI Alliance is driving adoption of an In-Vehicle Infotainment (IVI) open-source development platform. These are active groups: Their members will be meeting next in early July at the Automotive Linux Summit in Tokyo. 

So while some in Detroit may not "get" open-source or what to make of Tesla's newly free patents, open-source savvy car companies such as Jaguar Land Rover, BMW, GM, Peugeot Citroën, Renault, and Toyota are another matter. These companies already know that working together with open source makes perfect business sense.

Read this

Why Detroit will squander Tesla's patent present

Why Detroit will squander Tesla's patent present

Chrysler, Ford and GM need to be willing to kick Big Oil in the crotch to bring affordable EVs to the general public.

As Jim Zemlin, executive director at Linux Foundation, told me in an e-mail interview, "Elon Musk gets a key fact that Linus Torvalds got 23 years ago: By opening up and kickstarting collaboration, you can enable much greater innovation to quickly solve complex problems.

Patents — just like proprietary software — introduces friction that stifles innovation in fast- moving markets. Musk and Tesla just eliminated a major speed bump on the path to the wide spread use of electric cars. Open collaboration — especially without the threat of patent wars — is the fastest way to solve complex problems that can benefit all of mankind."

What Tesla brings to the racetrack isn't just driver electronics. By opening its patents, the company is giving its competitors "a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles." Musk wrote that at first he thought Tesla was "compelled to create patents out of concern that the big car companies would copy our technology and then use their massive manufacturing, sales and marketing power to overwhelm Tesla. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The unfortunate reality is the opposite: electric car programs (or programs for any vehicle that doesn’t burn hydrocarbons) at the major manufacturers are small to non-existent, constituting an average of far less than 1 percent of their total vehicle sales."

Therefore, "Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day." So, to benefit not only Tesla, but other companies making electric cars, and indeed the oil-starved world, Tesla is open-sourcing its full patent portfolio.

Tesla has approximately 250 patents. These patents mostly cover electric car battery and related technology. Given that the Tesla Model S's EPA mileage range is 265 miles, compared to the far smaller Nissan Leaf's 114 miles; Chevy Spark's 119 miles; Ford Focus Electrics 105 miles, and Mitsubishi i-MiEV's 112 miles, Tesla's electric rivals will benefit greatly by adopting Tesla's patents in their designs.

Andrew Updegrove, a founding partner of Gesmer Updegrove, a top intellectual property and technology law firm, thinks Tesla's move is "very forward thinking and commendable action that follows on two already existing trends: the prevalence of Linux and other open-source software already embedded throughout vehicles today, and a practice going back a decade whereby companies such as IBM, Oracle, Motorola and Nokia all made non-assertion commitments with regard to open source software involving, in the aggregate, thousands of patents."

Daniel Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT), a patent reform organization, also applauds the move. "The concept shows intellectual maturity on the role of patents in their business. It's absolutely the right thing to do, and shows courage that they're willing to do it."

Still, Ravicher wonders, "exactly what the licensing terms are" for these patents.

He's not the only one. Keith Bergelt, CEO of the Open Invention Network (OIN) — a defensive patent organization for Linux, said he's "encouraged by the Tesla announcement and is eager to learn precisely the scope and breadth of their patent pledge. As a complement to whatever pledge Tesla makes regarding its patents, we would also hope that Tesla would fully embrace patent non-aggression across the entire Linux system by joining the almost 1,000 member strong OIN licensee community."

While we wait for the legal details, I will also observe that, regardless of how you feel about open-sourcing patents, this seems to be a smart business move. It will raise the popularity level of electric cars in general and, in so doing, it will also raise Tesla's position as the leading electric car manufacturer.

Related stories:

Topics: Emerging Tech, Hardware, Legal, Open Source, Patents

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  • Watch out on the financials

    PR moves like this tell me the financials are going to come out even worse next quarter than the last one. The taxpayer handouts are drying up.
    Buster Friendly
    • Luddites rule ...

      What a sad, sad boy; when I was your age, the future was an exciting place. What is school doing to you kids?
      • Fail

        Google "ad hominem" and you'll understand your complete and total failure here.
        Buster Friendly
      • Teaching them reality.

        Sad to see Luddites clinging to the old rules, the old ways of doing things, "this is how we did it" thought process where because a technology exists, it must be marveled and used.

        Today's though process is that technology advancements are inevitable, the question is will I be the better, or the worse for using it?

        Not sure about Telsa's financials, or if they are subsidized via government money, but one thing is certain, and that is a $70,000 to $100,000 dollar car with limitations of 'electric only" is not something that will work for the majority, no matter if the patents are open or not.
    • Handouts?

      You mean those loans they already paid back?
      Michael Alan Goff
      • No

        No, the per unit handouts being paid by us to supplement rich people's cars. Did you read the last quarters reports?
        Buster Friendly
  • Take note, Apple

    Tesla is one of the leaders in performance electric automobiles. So what did they do? Did they start nit-picking every little similarity their competition has to their product? No, they said "We want to push the idea of high performance electric cars. Let's let everyone use the technology we have." They aren't hoarding technological advancements, they are trying to make them accessible to everyone.
    • I don't think have to worry about competition

      for super niche $100,000+ novelty cars that these patents are for.

      This is meaningless what they did, these native advertising articles pushing tesla are garbage.

      When they release plans for a $20,000-30,000 medium size car with 500+ mile range and 10+ year battery life that charges from purely solar then we should care.

      I think they should build solar charging stations where you just swap out a battery like a cordless drill and drive off in seconds. The plug in and wait concept is just dumb.
      • That isn't feasable...

        What would happen is all the charged batteries would be in use, with nothing for the customer that comes in with a discharged battery.

        What is really needed is a fast recharge device - and some are starting to be seen in experimental devices. They are actually more like capacitors than batteries (no chemical change required).
      • Huh?

        I think the idea here that other car makers can take Tesla's ideas and scale them down to bring better $20-30K electric cars to market.

        Tesla doesn't want to make econo-electric cars, but as the electric car market grows as a whole, it grows for everyone, low end through high-end.

        And that means more sales for Tesla in the long run.
        • Explain

          Explain how this "scaling down" is done. Be specific.
          Buster Friendly
        • Smart and not altruistic

          To make Tesla cars more popular, you need more recharge stations. You get me a more recharge stations, when other manufacturers make cars using the same charging / battery technology. The way to do that is to give away the technology. Tesla will always have its niche and manufacturing prowess to distinguish it from all the also-rans competing at a lower price point.
          Luke Skywalker
    • Yea, that's what he wants to think

      Yea, that's exactly that they want you to think because the financials are bombing. You're supposed to keep paying 10x the value for a stock because of warm and fuzzy thoughts so the billionaires can laugh all the way to the bank.
      Buster Friendly
  • Whoooooosh!

    "I don't think have to worry about competition for super niche $100,000+ novelty cars that these patents are for."

    If the Big Oil Boys take up Teslas's generous offer, they'll be able to make better EVs for less money; that will bring forward the day that prices do start to drop.

    This isn't new; it happens with ALL new rechnologies; firt they need subsidy, imagination and support, then they reach critical mass and take off.
    • Stopped at "big"

      Stopped reading at "big." As soon as you start speaking in clichés, you've stopped thinking. The "us vs them" is all part of the manipulation.
      Buster Friendly
    • Who are these "Big Oil Boys" you speak of?

      it can't be GM, Ford, ect. as they have no real interests in "Big Oil" beyond the one real fact that it's the best value for the buck fuel to power engines, so they build for what's available.

      If a pocket sized battery could run your car for 500 miles between charges, you would be safe to bet on the car companies dropping gas powered cars for electric ones in a heart beat.

      There is no conspiracy, there is only profit.
  • grasping at straws

    Its the 'we can sell the tech cause no one is that interested, so maybe if we give it away under undisclosed licence terms then people might get interested' mentality...

    Won't make much of a dint at all... What drives car companies is being different not being the same...

    What dint it might make will come in the form of companies cherry picking small bits of the technologies to form the basis of their own limited R&D efforts.

    Also in the end I cant see this helping Teslas sales much because if BMW or Mercedes or any of the other luxury brand models started releasing cars in Teslas price range, who do you think they are going to buy from? The established brand that gives them the 'I own a...' feel or the lesser known 'upstart' brand?
  • There is money in open source for sure ...

    A number of companies, large and small, in various sectors are finding ways to profit from open source philosophy. I remember all the predictions fifteen years ago that Linux would most certainly not be around for long because nothing could survive by giving away the product. Where are those people now? Linux continues to prosper and slowly proliferate and other companies marketing other stuff are finding ways to prosper by giving away their IP in one form or another. When IP is used in ways that benefit the consumer, it deserves to be rewarded, but when it is used in ways that only rip off the consumer by being used as a weapon to suppress innovation by competitors, it is a curse and should not be rewarded. Thankfully at least some companies are getting the message, and finally the courts seem to be getting the message as well.
    George Mitchell
    • IP protection fosters innovation

      When executed properly. "Properly" appears to be hard to define in the tech era. The Patent Office is clearly struggling with what should and should not be patentable in software.

      If I have a uniquely better solution to a problem, be it a devise, an Rx, song, book or code, am I not entitled to "own" it for some period? Compensation for innovation. Atlas Shrugged...
      Luke Skywalker
  • Greenstage in New Zealand

    If you're interested in high-performance open-source cars, check out:


    and get involved, there's a lot of good stuff going on!