The development costs of many major league engineering projects have long been beyond the capabilities of single companies. Aeroplanes are a good example.
Today, Airbus products are a co-operative venture involving France, Spain, Germany and the UK. The last all-British military aeroplane was probably the Hawker Siddeley Hawk, which took to the skies in 1974.
Subsequent military aircraft – such as the 1970s SEPECAT Jaguar and Panavia Tornado – were designed and built by a consortium of nations. Even the mighty US economy is sagging at the bill for the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which could come in at a staggering £263bn over the whole life of the programme.
The auto industry isn’t quite at the point of needing such massive transnational co-operation or mega-orders from government, but it is also reaching a critical point in terms of development costs as global governments demand the ‘greening’ of the car industry.
It is possible, of course, for a single healthy company to lead the way in a new technology, as Toyota did with hybrid drivetrains. But what happens when it is not clear which new eco technology to invest in?
Probably the most famous technological consumer durable face-off was between two video recorder systems: VHS and Betamax. But there have been plenty of other technological dead-ends. Video discs died a death and Sony’s digital recording medium Mini Discs came and went, as did other forms of recording.
The key is for an entire industry to head in the same direction with a well worked out solution, while preventing many different technologies from emerging which bleed companies dry. It means co-operation before competition.
There have been some big successes in recent times. USB sockets, JPG digital photo files, PDFs, CD and DVD formats, MP3 music files and MP4 video files have been well established.
In July last year Tesla started the great patent giveaway. Elon Musk said: “We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly evolving technology platform. We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla’s position in this regard.”
But this week heralded arguably the most far-reaching attempt to encourage a whole industry to move in step when Toyota announced that more than 5600 patents related to fuel cell technology can be used royalty-free by other car makers and companies involved in hydrogen technology.
It’s a remarkable offer and probably the first one like it in the automotive world since Volvo allowed everyone to clone the three-point seatbelt. But adopting fuel cell technology and rolling out a refuelling network is a challenge of a far greater order than a new type of seatbelt or recording medium.
The official line seems remarkably straightforward. “At Toyota, we believe that when good ideas are shared, great things can happen,” said Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations at Toyota Motor Sales, USA Inc.
“The first-generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, launched between 2015 and 2020, will be critical, requiring a concerted effort and unconventional collaboration between automakers, government regulators, academia and energy providers. 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.”
The fuel cell patents will remain free until the end of 2020, says Toyota. I think we can safely say, that if Toyota’s technology has not been picked up by then, fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen power will have received a massive setback.
The wider point is that, as costs escalate and CO2 and pollution regulations become ever more onerous, the mainstream automotive industry is going to have to indulge in more co-operation and collaboration, just like the aircraft industry was forced to.
The bottom line is that the investment needed for the second half of the story of the private car is going to be immense.