What could possibly be next when you’re a 70-year-old knighted British inventor who has previously introduced the world to blade-free fans, $400 hair dryers and, most famously, super-deluxe bagless vacuum cleaners that enjoy a cultish following the world over?
Electric cars, of course.
Sir James Dyson, self-made billionaire and textbook example of the good things that can happen when you fail a thousand times but keep on plugging away at it, announced his eponymous home appliance company’s entry into the increasingly crowded electric vehicle market late last month via an email to employees.
The announcement comes well over a year after government documents suggesting Dyson’s involvement in the development of an electric car at its Wiltshire, England, headquarters were leaked. When asked whether or not an electric car was in the works, a Dyson spokesperson responded at the time: “We never comment on products that are in development.”
Like most new creations from the famously tenacious and hush-hush Dyson, exact details surrounding his company’s first foray into battery-powered automobiles are still being kept incredibly close to the vest. Here’s what was divulged: The yet-to-be-prototyped vehicle will be a “premium” product (no surprise here), a team of 400 Dyson engineers and auto industry experts are already hard at work on it and Dyson himself has already committed 2 billion pounds (roughly $2.7 billion) to the project, which is to be unveiled in the relatively near future, 2020. “We don’t have an existing chassis," James Dyson tells the Guardian. "We’re starting from scratch. What we’re doing is quite radical.”
Forbes notes that half of the money will be spent on further perfecting an electric battery and the other half will be used toward designing and manufacturing the mystery vehicle itself.
Dyson anticipates that his company’s nascent automobile business will grow larger than the rest of his company, which designs, manufactures and markets ultra-hygienic (or not) hand-dryers; a range of slick, bladeless fans along with souped-up space heaters and air purifiers and, last but not least, Dyson’s signature product: a collection of high-priced, high-performance vacuum cleaners that are constantly — some might say obsessively — reconfigured and rereleased with improved strength and efficiency. More recently, Dyson entered the hair dryer market with a “supersonic” model that uses similar technology as its innovative vacuum cleaners (and a similar price tag to match).
As reported by Forbes, Dyson expects to make a profit from the venture.
While all-important specs — size, appearance, performance, exact cost etc. — about the in-development electric vehicle itself are nil, Dyson, who first revolutionized the tired old vacuum cleaner market in the early 1990s, did elaborate as to why he’s taking on electric cars in his email to Dyson employees:
… governments around the world have encouraged the adoption of oxymoronically designated 'clean diesel' engines through subsidies and grants. Major auto manufacturers have circumvented and duped clean air regulations. As a result, developed and developing cities are full of smog-belching cars, lorries and buses. It is a problem that others are ignoring.
Throughout, it has remained my ambition to find a solution to the global problem of air pollution. Some years ago, observing that automotive firms were not changing their spots, I committed the company to develop new battery technologies. I believed that electrically powered vehicles would solve the vehicle pollution problem.
At this moment, we finally have the opportunity to bring all our technologies together into a single product. Rather than filtering emissions at the exhaust pipe, today we have the ability to solve it at the source. So I wanted you to hear it directly from me: Dyson has begun work on a battery electric vehicle, due to be launched by 2020.
Is Dyson the next Tesla?
Waging battle against air pollution is, of course, an excellent reason to throw one’s fortune behind the development of a zero-emissions car, particularly when your name is synonymous with electric battery technology and lightweight and high-efficiency digital brushless motors.
But can Sir James Dyson, high king of vacuum cleaners, succeed?
Writing for Wired, Jack Stewart notes that despite fierce competition in an industry that chews up and spits out newcomers, it’s not completely crazy for Dyson to give EVs a spin considering the company’s “reputation for engineering smart, often exceptional products.”
In the '90s Dyson developed a filter to trap diesel particulates. Now we are working on an electric vehicle to solve the problem at the source. pic.twitter.com/nOLsCjeqws— Dyson (@Dyson) September 27, 2017
With vast experience in aerodynamics, electric motor design and batteries, Stewart lays out in detail how the company could indeed find niche success in the electric vehicle market. Perhaps a direct competitor to Elon Musk’s Tesla is in the making.
But if Dyson really wants to disrupt the EV market while saving the world in the process — and it sounds like he very much does — he may need to share his patented technology with other leaders in the field in lieu of keeping it strictly in-house as is custom with his company. Auto industry analyst BMI Research acknowledges that Dyson has a decent chance at making waves in the market for all the same reasons detailed by Wired, suggesting the company would be smart to partner with outside investors to guarantee a success.
In his letter to employees, Dyson references a King’s College London study that found 9,500 people die each year due to prolonged exposure to air pollution. (The United Kingdom plans to ban all gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040.) “It is our obligation to offer a solution to the world’s largest single environmental risk,” he writes.