Toyota's Mirai needs friends. Lots of friends. The hydrogen fuel-cell car, which will start selling in the U.S. this fall, needs people to buy it--and Toyota's offering a bunch of sweet perks to early adopters. But it also needs more hydrogen fuel stations, so people won't feel constrained in using it on a daily basis.

You know a company's committed when it gives away patents, which is exactly what Toyota announced Monday at the Consumer Electronics Show. The company will license for free about 5,680 globally held patents around hydrogen fuel-cell technology, from now through the end of 2020.

Patents are like precious jewels. They are not given away lightly. But by doing so, Toyota clearly hopes to encourage more vehicle development. The company may also be aiming to set some industry standards that can help this fledgling car category gain some momentum.

"The first generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, launched between 2015 and 2020, will be critical, requiring a concerted effort and unconventional collaboration between automakers, government regulators, academia and energy providers, said Bob Carter, Senior Vice President of Automotive Operations at Toyota Motor Sales, USA, in a statement. "By eliminating traditional corporate boundaries," Carter continued, "we can speed the development of new technologies and move into the future of mobility more quickly, effectively and economically."

Hydrogen cars need hydrogen stations

'Economically' is an important word here. Hydrogen fueling stations remain few and far between. California has only 9 operating stations, with 29 more approved to be built. Toyota expects up to 35 stations to be built in California by the end of the year. The company will sell the vehicle only to people living within reasonable range of a hydrogen station. 

Building out hydrogen stations is an extremely expensive proposition. While a Level 2 EV charging station might cost $20,000 or so to build in the U.S., a hydrogen station currently costs between $1 million and $2 million to build. Toyota's putting a lot of its own money into infrastructure, but it can't do it alone. Handing out free patent licenses will help it encourage partners and entrepreneurs to invest in hydrogen stations. And it wouldn't be the first to try this: Tesla's also giving away patents to encourage more charging stations for its own cars.

I drove a Mirai in December, a week before the car started selling in Japan. It drives a lot like a Prius--sedately and quietly, given its electric motor. I love that its only exhaust is water. But there's only one station anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, and it's more than 30 miles from my home. Even putting just two more stations in the Bay Area would make it much easier for the tech-crazy, early-adopter-inclined people who live here to consider buying a Mirai. Toyota has everything to gain from encouraging more development, and giving away some patents is just a means to the end.