In 2014, Tesla did something remarkable: They opened up their patents and put them online for free. With Tesla’s greatest secrets readily available, suddenly anyone who wanted to could see exactly how Tesla makes their cars and how their greatest technological innovations work.
Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, explained his decision to open up their patents by saying “Technology leadership is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor, but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers.”
Musk’s goal in making Tesla patents open source was to spur technological development and innovation of electric cars. He claimed their competition was 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.”
But if open-source vehicle technology becomes more commonplace, how could it affect auto manufacturing, sales, and service as we know them? Is rampant technological innovation a good thing, or will it make it near-impossible for OEMs to remain competitive?
The basic question is, should other auto manufacturers follow Musk’s lead or hold tight to their patents for as long as they can?
We can’t know for sure how commonplace open-source auto tech would affect the industry, but we can imagine a few pros and cons.
Open-Source Auto Tech Pros:
1) The biggest benefit of open-source auto technology would be exactly what Elon Musk envisions: technology development and innovation at unprecedented levels. With everything we know available to every engineer, addressing challenges and coming up with never-before-seen solutions would happen faster than ever.
2) If everyone had access to all the same information, there would also be greater collaboration among companies who would otherwise be competitors. Manufacturers could combine their ideas and innovations to create new and better vehicles. Teams from separate companies could work together and freely exchange new ideas.
3) More prevalent technological innovations could also lower prices of new tech for consumers. If every model from every manufacturer offers the same high-tech features, more people will be able to afford them more quickly. Rather than the current trickle-down effect of cutting-edge features gradually becoming standard.
Open-Source Auto Tech Cons:
1) Patents are profitable. When manufacturers keep their tech to themselves, they can make more money off new innovations and features. Simple as that. Open-source platforms threaten existing revenue streams.
2) Manufacturers would also face far greater competition, and subsequently, a greater challenge to remain competitive. As Musk himself said, success would depend on a manufacturer’s ability to keep attracting new and creative engineering talent. That’s much harder to do in an open-source model.
3) What would the current manufacturing models even look like in an open-source world? Experts speculate that with greater access to new technology, large-scale manufacturing might transform into a smaller scale, highly-customizable alternative. Especially as technology such as 3D printing become more prevalent.
Two years after Tesla’s announcement, they’re still the only auto company to allow open access to their patents. So open-source access is too new to know for sure how it would change the automotive world as we know it. But we can say for sure that if more manufacturers choose to follow Tesla’s lead in the future, technology and manufacturing as we know them would become something entirely new.