If Tesla opens up its Supercharger patents, that’s not so controversial — just more Google than Apple

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk hinted at the company’s shareholder’s meeting last week that Tesla was going to do something “fairly controversial” with Tesla’s patents, leading some to ponder whether it might straight up open-source its IP — which would be almost shocking, given how much technical expertise Tesla has piled up on electric cars, vehicle design and car software in general. But Musk clarified at the launch of the U.K. right-hand drive Model S that Tesla plans, specifically, to open up the designs of its Supercharger network, which could help create a tech standard for charging that other electric car makers could adopt.

So, no. Tesla isn’t going open-source itself, and in my opinion it isn’t doing something all that controversial. The move might be controversial inside Tesla, which has long played by an Apple-like closed rule book, but in a nascent electric car market, it makes sense that Tesla would need to take a more Google-inspired approach to helping build out the overall market for electric cars.

Tesla Model S, image courtesy of Tesla.
Tesla Model S, image courtesy of Tesla

Over the years Google has taken this open strategy in various ways, both to get more broadband access out there and to popularize its platforms. The idea is that if there are more broadband connections (Google’s free city Wi-Fi for example), there are more people using Google products in general. This was particularly important in the earlier days of the internet when Google was ultimately constrained by the amount of users with fast internet connections.

Tesla is now constrained by a couple things, but one of the major hurdles is simply the nascent, small electric car market in general (as well as the high price of its currently available cars). As more and more people buy electric cars from any car company, Tesla’s available market will also grow.

Nissan LEAF, image courtesy of Nissan.
Nissan LEAF, image courtesy of Nissan

Last year 96,000 plug-in electric cars were sold in the U.S. — just a little bit more than 0.5 percent of the total U.S. vehicle market of 16.5 million. Yes, that’s just the U.S. market, and electric-car-friendly markets like Norway are already eager. But Norway is tiny. The development of the global electric car market will take many years, but Tesla can help push the overall market forward by getting more chargers out there that can support EVs.

Now, who knows if other auto companies will even be interested in Tesla’s idea. Car companies might have to abide by Tesla’s business model (free electricity along with the car) if they use Tesla Supercharger designs.

It will be interesting to see how electric car charging companies will react to this news. In the same way that Google tends to step smack in the middle of a market, putting a half-dozen startups out of business, Tesla giving away its charging designs, could undermine all those companies out there that sell charging infrastructure. But then again, that market doesn’t seem all that great of a place to be anyway.