There are hundreds of shiny products vying for attention at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but the biggest news of the show so far probably isn't what you think.
Toyota's announcement on Monday that it will issue royalty-free licenses on its 5,680 patents concerning hydrogen fuel-cell technology isn't as sexy as Samsung's 4K TVs or LG's curved mobile phones, but it could have much more significance. Toyota's commitment could add significant momentum to the development of cars that run on the most abundant element in the universe and whose only by-product is pure water.
"This is a hundred-year play," said Bob Carter, a senior vice president at Toyota Motor Sales, in an interview at CES. "This is where we see the automobile industry going for the next 100 years."
Fuel cells work by taking hydrogen from a tank and first separating electrons from hydrogen atoms at an anode. The electrons flow through an external circuit providing electricity to power a motor that runs the car. At the fuel cell's cathode, the electrons are recombined with ionized hydrogen atoms and oxygen from the air to create water.
Car makers have been testing fuel cells for years and Toyota and Honda are now on the verge of commercializing the technology. Toyota's hydrogen fuel cell car, called the Mirai, will go on sale this year in California and can travel about 300 miles on a single charge of hydrogen. Refilling the tank takes about five minutes -- much faster than a comparable charge for an electric vehicle -- but finding a place to fill up remains a challenge.
There are still only a handful of hydrogen recharging stations in the state and that's part of the background to Monday's patent announcement. Among the patents on offer are around 70 related to recharging technology, and those will be offered with no time limit.
"We are prepared to support the development of the infrastructure and help with the maintenance and operation until the scalability gets to the point where it becomes a viable business model, and we see that really being developed over the next five years," said Carter.
Toyota's offer shows the car maker is thinking far into the future, said Toru Hatano, an analyst at IHS Automotive in Tokyo.
"To expand the fuel-cell vehicle market after 2020, participation of other [companies] will be needed before 2020," he said. "If other [companies] will not join to the market, the infrastructure will not increase and the market will possibly vanish. That's not what Toyota wants."
Alongside Toyota, the State of California, keen to see cleaner vehicles replace the state's roughly 13 million cars, is funding a $50 million program to build hydrogen refueling stations to help kick-start the technology. It hopes to see a million hydrogen vehicles on the state's roads by 2020.
Elon Musk made a similar offer with Tesla's patents on electric vehicle technology last year. He had a similar objective: to promote the development of electric vehicle technology and help build a ubiquitous charging infrastructure.
Asked about the electric vehicles on Monday, Toyota's Carter said he still saw a place for them in the market but he believed hydrogen fuel cell cars make much more sense for most drivers.
"The weight of the batteries, the cost, the limited range and the long recharge times ... there are no quick solutions coming," he said, referring to some of the challenges facing electric cars. "For many consumers who find those hurdles a reason not to purchase, we think this vehicle is going to offer a good solution today."
Hatano, the auto analyst, said Toyota's offer might bring it other benefits too. If other companies design and develop fuel-cell vehicle technology based on Toyota's patents, the company's technology might become a widely used standard and that sets Toyota up for royalties from 2021 going forward, he said.
Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is [email protected]