Entering this year, Tesla had been issued 203 patents covering its batteries and other key features that distinguish its electric cars from gasoline-powered vehicles. Tesla currently makes one vehicle — the Model S sedan — and is developing two others. Its Model X crossover is due out next year.
Another 280 patent applications are still pending in the U.S. and other countries, according to Tesla's regulatory filings. The earliest any of Tesla's current patents expires is in 2026, so the Palo Alto, California, company is relinquishing a potentially valuable long-term advantage by giving away its intellectual property to its rivals.
Musk says the patents could be a "modest" help to other companies developing electric cars. He says Tesla has gotten few requests for technology from rivals, but he thinks that's partly because the patents were blocking access.
Nissan, which makes the electric Leaf, said it had no comment on Tesla's action. The Leaf only goes 84 miles on a battery charge, compared with up to 265 miles with a Model S. But the Model S has a much larger battery and, with a starting price of $70,000, costs twice as much as a Leaf.
Prashand Kumta, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's school of engineering, said Tesla's lithium-ion battery technology isn't unique. But how the company packages that technology and designs its cars could be useful to other companies.
The patents also protect some of the technology Tesla uses to recharge its cars after the battery has been drained.
Currently, Tesla has about 100 "Supercharger" stations scattered across North America and Europe that give Model S drivers a free power source when traveling long distances. The technology is designed to replenish about half of the battery power within 20 minutes. Tesla recently opened three Supercharger stations in China and plans to set up about 200 more around the world, including Japan, by the end of the year.
If the release of Tesla's patents encourages major automakers to build more electric cars, it also might spur the creation of more charging stations. That, in turn, could save Tesla money and help drive more sales of its sedans if consumers are less anxious about running out of power while on the road.
"I think Superchargers could be a great area for collaboration and creating a common industry platform," Musk said. He said Tesla discussed a potential Superchargers partnership with BMW in a Wednesday night meeting.
Musk says sharing the technology could accelerate development and solidify Tesla's leadership in the market. Some analysts agreed.
"By opening its patents, Tesla rightly realizes it's better to be the best product in a large industry than the only product in a niche one," observed Silicon Valley entrepreneur Aaron Levie, the CEO of file-storing company Box Inc., in a Thursday post on his Twitter account.