July 16, 2014 at 1:42 pm

Big 3 shows little interest in Tesla patents

Tesla Motors Inc., the electric-car maker led by Elon Musk, last month opened its electric vehicle patents to other auto manufacturers. But Detroit’s Big Three automakers say they are either not interested, or they’re not sharing their plans.

General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles haven’t reached out to Tesla, while Ford Motor Co. didn’t comment directly on the matter.

Although multiple reports said BMW inquired about the patents, industry analysts say most automakers find the Tesla battery tech outdated or not compatible with their own programs, but would be open to collaboration on other parts — like charging stations — in the future.

“Our sense is that companies like GM have been working on electric vehicles and have marketed them long before there was even a hint of Tesla being out there, and the same can be said for Ford and Chrysler,” said Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for KBB.com. “These are giant companies that have giant research and development operations. I think they like what they do and generally think the technology they develop is top tech.”

Tesla said it opened its patents to help expand the adoption of electric vehicles.

In a June blog post, Musk said, “If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal.”

The automaker has more than 160 patents for things like a system to protect battery packs from overcharging. Recent patent applications relate to computer-user interfaces and a port to allow for emergency maintenance of a high-energy battery pack.

Edmunds.com senior analyst John O’Dell said Tesla uses an expensive battery system that the other automakers do not use.

“It’s unlikely the whole industry will shift and change to a Tesla-type battery,” O’Dell said. “Whatever value is there, I do not think it’s in their batteries.”

The value, some analysts say, may lie in Tesla’s charging stations. The California-based automaker in June opened its 100th Supercharger station for its electric Model S car. The stations can charge an electric car in about 20 minutes, about 16 times faster than other public stations.

While they haven’t shown interest yet, Detroit’s automakers said they’re open to working with other car companies.

“We encourage the adoption of innovative technology across the industry,” Ford said in a statement. “We are the first and only automaker to have dedicated open-source hardware and software platforms, Smart Device Link and OpenXC.”

Ford has a Focus Electric vehicle that’s powered by a lithium-ion battery, as well as C-MAX and Fusion hybrids.

GM has three plug-in electric vehicles: the Chevy Volt, the Chevy Spark and Cadillac ELR.

“We have not talked to (Tesla) about the patents,” said Kevin Kelly, GM’s manager of electrification communications. “We don’t have anybody looking at those right now. It’s not something that’s on the front burner for us to look at.”

Still, Kelly didn’t rule out the use of shared technology in the future. “I think anything that can help to advance the adoption of electric vehicles is a positive,” he said.

“While Chrysler Group’s powertrain strategy includes vehicle electrification, a technology we have successfully demonstrated to date, we have no immediate plans for such outreach,” Chrysler said in a statement.

Gloria Bergquest, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said, “It’s such a competitive industry, that if anyone can find a benefit in sharing info, they will do so.”