Ford Motor Company announced this morning that it would open its portfolio of patents related to electrified vehicles--meaning both hybrids and electric cars--to competitive automakers.
The Dearborn, Michigan, company says its goal is to "accelerate industry-wide research and development of electrified vehicles."
At the same time, Ford said it will add 200 additional engineers to work on those vehicles as it centralizes their operations in a new facility.
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Ford may be the least transparent of the three Detroit automakers around its intentions for electric cars.
General Motors is moving ahead with its launch of the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, a subcompact electric car with a 200-mile range that it says it will sell for $37,500 before incentives.
GM will also start selling the second-generation 2016 Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid later this year.
Fiat Chrysler, on the other hand, makes no secret of its dislike for cars with plugs.
CEO Sergio Marchionne has said several times he hopes not to sell a single Fiat 500e electric car more than the minimum required to meet California's zero-emission vehicle sales rules, and he claims to lose $14,000 on each one sold.
Ford's view of electric cars, however, is far less clear. By the end of this month, it will have sold roughly 5,000 Ford Focus Electric hatchbacks.
That puts its sole all-electric car squarely in the same category as "compliance cars" like the 500e that are sold solely to meet the California rules.
2013 Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid, Marin County, CA, Nov 2012
Ford has also sold more than 40,000 of its Energi plug-in hybrid models.
A few industry rumors suggest that the company may have something more up its sleeve, most likely a longer-range electric car.
That theory may be supported by Ford's addition of 200 engineers to work on hybrid and electric cars, moving them into a newly dedicated facility in a building that once housed Henry Ford's first laboratories.
MORE: Ford Can Design Tesla-Like Electric Car, CEO Says (Oct 2014):
The announcement that it will release its electrified-vehicle patents for general use follows a similar announcement last June by startup electric-car maker Tesla Motors.
Tesla, however, has suggested that it will license its patents free of charge--under unspecified terms--while the word "purchase" in Ford's announcement indicates that it will expect to be paid licensing fees.
"By sharing our research with other companies," said Kevin Layden, who is director of Ford Electrification Programs, "we will accelerate the growth of electrified vehicle technology and deliver even better products to customers.
2015 Ford Focus Electric
“As an industry," he added, "we need to collaborate while we continue to challenge each other."
Ford notes that last year, it filed for more than 400 patents in that area, representing more than one-fifth of its 2,000-plus total patent applications that year.
Altogether, the company says it has been granted more than 650 electrified vehicle patents, with roughly 1,000 more pending.
Representative of the patents Ford is offering, it said in its release, are these three:
- Method and Apparatus for Battery Charge Balancing (US 5764027)
- Temperature Dependent Regenerative Brake System for Electric Vehicle (US 6275763)
- Driving Behavior Feedback Interface (US 8880290)
The patents will be offered through Ford's technology commercialization and licensing office, and through the collaborative innovation and licensing marketplace AutoHarvest.
Ford is likely positioning itself to launch a vehicle that competes with the new crop of higher-range battery-electric vehicles coming in 2017 and beyond.
2005 Ford Escape Hybrid
Those cars will sell at prices lower than the $75,000 starting price of the 240-mile Tesla Model S 70D.
But Ford's offer to license patents reflects the sobering realization that economies of scale will be important to cut costs enough that plug-in cars can move beyond their current niche status and into the mainstream.
Ford was the first U.S. maker of hybrid cars--it launched the now-defunct Ford Escape Hybrid more than 10 years ago. Now, it apparently feels that its intellectual property can advance the state of the art--and earn it some money.