Elon Musk is the kind of guy who probably spent his high school years asking, "Why?" or "Why not?" each time he ran up against conventional wisdom.
He took that mind-set into the business world and became an acclaimed "disruptor," most recently shaking up the auto world. On his blog last week, the chief executive officer of electric car maker Tesla Motors announced that he is opening up its electric car technology patents to competitors.
This move may actually be more brilliant than bizarre.
Conventional wisdom holds that no one gives away business secrets for fear of being trampled by a herd of imitators who didn’t put in the same dollars or sweat and toil. But Musk says he created Tesla to make electric cars part of everyday life — an idea that is still spinning its wheels in the muddy field of patent litigation, customer tastes and expensive technology.
Finding a lost ring in the Sahara would seem to be a far easier undertaking than disrupting decades-old global gasoline networks that extend from oil and gas exploration fields to gasoline stations to the family car.
So Musk is trying a new calculation. Ending Tesla’s patent secrecy removes one barrier to innovation and mass affordable commercialization of electric cars. Yes, it is still all pie in the sky. But Musk also is betting that his approach could have the related benefit of tackling the world’s energy, climate change and clean air challenges by slowing reliance on carbon-polluting cars.
As Musk puts it, "If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property land mines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal."
As a matter of practical business, opening access to Tesla’s intellectual property could encourage companies to share the costs of erecting charging stations, create better, cheaper batteries and otherwise break dependence on fossil fuels. Don’t expect the automotive industry to shift gears in unison, but Nissan, the maker of the all-electric Leaf, and BMW reportedly are already interested in Tesla’s quick-recharging technology.
Admittedly, it’s less threatening to give away trade secrets when you’ve already made a fortune in other businesses and need to jump-start the still minuscule electric car industry. What Musk is doing probably would not make a lot of sense for most companies.
Still, underestimating Musk, whose quirky dreams also created the revolutionary online payment system PayPal and private space-flight company SpaceX, is itself a risky idea. Disruptors’ success is all about asking, "Why not?"