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Can Open Patents or Zippy Race Cars Spur Electric Car Sales?

Electric cars, no matter how sexy, still have a battery problem
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OPEN PATENTS: Can litigation-free access to Tesla's technology help electric cars speed up sales?
© David Biello

The 21st century has witnessed the reinvention of the electric car. First popular in the waning days of the 19th century, the major manufacturers like General Motors and Nissan rebooted the electric car with the Volt and LEAF, respectively. In 2014 at least 17 electric cars—whether plug-in hybrids or all-electric vehicles—are available for purchase. And yet sales over the last decade of all models total slightly more than 200,000 cars in the U.S.—a country that sees more than 15 million cars sold every year.
 
So what will it take to move more people from burning gasoline to charging batteries for mobility?
 
Entrepreneur Elon Musk of Tesla, for one, believes that one of the problems is patents, specifically intellectual property rights that prevent other manufacturers from copying and improving on breakthroughs in battery management, design or chassis. Initially, the company sought patents to protect itself from being overwhelmed by the big car companies like GM and Nissan. "We couldn't have been more wrong," Musk wrote in a blog post announcing Tesla's plan to "not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology." After all, Tesla only made 7,535 Model S cars in the first three months of this year (and sold 6,457 of them—China, included). "Our true competition," Musk added, "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."
 
To stem that flood, Tesla hopes to lend some of its cool, comfort and safety to other electric-car manufacturers because the only way to make the products ubiquitous is to make them better than their internal combustion counterparts. And to do that—despite Musk's other gamble on a "gigafactory" to produce current lithium ion batteries in bulk by 2017—electric cars need better batteries.
 
That's where a new effort dubbed Formula E comes in—a new racing circuit with new race cars burning rubber entirely on electricity and starting up this September. The goal of the new Formula E racing championship is to accelerate the adoption of electric cars that can cut down on global problems such as oil addiction, air pollution and potentially global warming. "The message is: electric cars are the solution," said Alejandro Agag, one-time Spanish politician turned Formula E CEO, at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance event in April.
 
The Formula-E car boasts a 15-kilogram, 300-horsepower engine powered by a lithium ion battery pack holding 30 kilowatt-hours of energy. "To get clean mobility, you need clean cars," Agag added. Plus, the car has its own unique sound to replace the roar of an internal combustion engine. "Our sound is more like the pod racing of Star Wars," Agag noted.
 
But current technology won’t yet permit Formula 1–style racing with the inaugural vehicle, the Spark-Renault SRT-01E. There’s no time to recharge the batteries in the middle of the hour-long race, and crash safety concerns prevent swapping battery packs like tires. So the drivers for each of the 10 teams will simply change cars mid-race. Each car can last for roughly 30 minutes on the fully charged regulation battery packs.
 
The first race is this September in Beijing and e-races will also grace the center city streets of Los Angeles, Miami, Monte Carlo, Berlin and London during the inaugural season, ensuring both that the electric race cars will be visible and that ordinary drivers who have to commute through the added traffic these races will bring will resent them. The hope, however, is that Formula E will drive a breakthrough in battery technology in a few years while sexing up the electric car idea. "Competition, especially with cars, is how technology has been developed," Agag argued, holding up the original “brick” cell phone. "This is only 25 years old. After 20 years, look what we've got," he continued, holding up his iPhone.
 
Of course, a car is a little bit more complicated than a cell phone. In the future the goal is for Formula-E cars to sport as many as four of the 300-horsepower engines, in which case they will be faster than their internal combustion counterparts in every respect. Already, electric cars are among the fastest starters off the line in the world, thanks to the instantaneous torque of electric motors. "As soon as we can get the energy to feed those four motors, electric cars will have no competitors," Agag said.
 
But electric cars also may not fulfill environmental ambitions in places like Beijing or Indianapolis, where most electricity comes from sooty coal. Electric cars will not solve the problem of air pollution or global warming if they exacerbate the resurgence of the dirtiest fossil fuel in place of oil—and yet Musk thinks China will be Tesla's biggest market within the next few years. Open patents or not, electric cars can fulfill Musk's dream of less polluting mobility only if the electricity to power them comes from less polluting sources. "We go out in the street and breathe in all this smoke—that smoke is worse than cigar smoke and we think it's normal," Agag said. In a few decades with the advent of clean, cheap electric cars, people might think "we were mad to just go out and breathe all this smoke from thousands of cars around us."

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