Toyota has used this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to announce that, until 2020, it will not enforce its more than 5600 patents on hydrogen fuel-cell technology.
The move, which follows a decision by electric carmaker Tesla to share the benefit of its own patented research into battery and EV technology, is intended to spur interest and advancement in hydrogen-based systems.
Toyota and Tesla had previously partnered on a development and battery supply program - a project that also resulted in the RAV4 EV - but the deal ended when the Japanese carmaker invested instead in a hydrogen fuel-cell focus.
Five years on, Toyota has revealed its futuristic Mirai, a hydrogen-fuelled sedan that will go on sale in the US later this year.
Commercial success for the Mirai and other hydrogen vehicles, however, will require greater infrastructure support.
Regions of the US already boast a small network of hydrogen fuel-cell refill stations, but Toyota is hoping that by loosening its grip on the technology, more carmakers and third-party organisations will embrace hydrogen systems.
Fuel-cell technology was recently described by Volkswagen Japan boss Shigeru Shoji as a “sales struggle” outside Japan, where interest in hydrogen systems is greatest.
“Fuel cells could become another example of the ‘Galapagos syndrome’, which plagues Japanese companies for making products that are only popular at home,” he told business paper Bloomberg in September.
In the same report, Toyota spokersperson Dion Corbett conceded that while hydrogen technology is expensive in its current form, government support - and now, the release of the company’s patents - could drive industry interest up.
This week, Toyota USA’s Bob Carter said that the first generation of hydrogen vehicles launched between 2015 and 2020 “will be critical” to the technology’s success.
“By eliminating traditional corporate boundaries, we can speed the development of new technologies and move into the future of mobility more quickly, effectively and economically,” he said.
Patents made available by Toyota include 1970 related to the fuel cell “stack,” 3350 patents on control software, 290 on hydrogen storage tanks and 70 patents for hydrogen production and supply.
There has also been progress in the field here in Australia, where researchers have successfully replicated crucial steps in plant photosynthesis, which could potentially lead to the more affordable 'manufacturing' of hydrogen for fuel.