The Industry

Why a High-End Vacuum Maker Is Getting Into Electric Vehicles

Dyson founder and chief engineer Sir James Dyson speaks onstage during the Dyson Supersonic Hair Dryer launch event on Sept. 14, 2016, in New York City.
Dyson founder and chief engineer Sir James Dyson speaks onstage during the Dyson Supersonic Hair Dryer launch event on Sept. 14, 2016, in New York City.
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Sir James Dyson is primarily known for inventing the beloved bagless vacuum cleaner that became the basis of his eponymous small home appliance company. Soon, that company may be venturing into an entirely new arena: electric vehicles. On Wednesday the Financial Times confirmed that Dyson is working on not one, but three electric vehicle models. It will be a massive $2.8 billion endeavor—it could shutter the company if it’s a failure—with an anticipated launch date of 2020 for the first of the three vehicles.

“A car’s a huge challenge,” James Dyson told the Financial Times.
Indeed, so big a challenge that companies like Apple decided to abandon its plan to build a self-driving car, choosing to focus on the underlying technology rather than the entire vehicle itself. What makes Dyson, best known for its vacuum cleaners and hair dryers, think that it’s capable of taking on such an ambitious project?

Unlike EV startups such as Faraday Future or even Tesla when it first started, Dyson is a well-established company with deep roots in manufacturing. It’s familiar with the challenges and expectations of successfully managing a global supply chain. Dyson likely already has well-established partnerships with overseas production facilities and suppliers, as well. Current suppliers, when broached about Dyson’s EV ambitions, told the Financial Times that the company’s founder “understands manufacturing,” and that his progress into this project may be “much more advanced than we’re led to believe.” Dyson also already has made inroads into the materials research and development that would go into an electric vehicle. The company has reportedly made heavy investments into new solid-state battery technology, which could enable longer battery life and faster charging time than existing lithium ion variants. It’s also working to develop lightweight materials. To that end, Dyson’s vehicle would likely utilize a large amount of composites such as carbon fiber, rather than metal, in order to balance the weight of the vehicle’s onboard battery.

That may be the most exciting aspect of Dyson’s venture into the EV space. In September, when James Dyson first revealed that the company had its eyes on an electric vehicle, he said that we could expect its foray to be “radically different” than existing cars on the market. Dyson, both the company and the inventor-slash-industrial designer, has a knack for reimagining commonplace items. Take, for example, the Dyson Cool tower fan, one of the company’s takes on the indoor fan. From its elongated oblong shape to its bladeless design, it eschews all the qualities you normally associate with a fan, and yet it does the job just as well (or better). Then there’s Dyson’s lines of vacuum cleaners, such as the Dyson Ball. There is very little to make a vacuum cleaner exciting, but Dyson managed to update both overall design and maneuverability with a unique ball-shaped joint that makes the very act of vacuuming feel just a little more whimsical—and look a lot more fun, too.

While the tech inside them has grown more advanced and more exciting in recent years, overall car design has grown stagnant—even boring. There’s good reason for that, according to an anonymous automotive engineer writing for Jalopnik: Boring is economical. On top of that, automakers now have a firm understanding of aerodynamics. Where the early days of the automotive saw a huge breadth of vehicle shapes and styles, we now know what shape slices through the air most easily, helping your car to achieve its optimum fuel economy—another thing automakers didn’t concern themselves too much with until recent decades.

Based on Dyson’s existing (and pricey—the vacuums cost $270 to $500XXXX>) consumer product offerings, we can assume that the company isn’t going to cut corners to ensure its vehicle is as affordable as possible. Its electric vehicles won’t be cheap—even if they’re not sportscars, they’ll be premium offerings.
And if you’re not confining yourself to producing a vehicle within a particular price point (or at least a low price point), your avenues for creative design elements open up. Hopefully Dyson will indeed come up with some “radically different” forms of what a vehicle can take.

Don’t expect to see a Dyson EV in your garage when they debut, however. For its first model, sources told the Financial Times that Dyson is only planning a small production run—fewer than 10,000 vehicles—and that China is expected to be a major purchaser of these cars.
Dyson will reportedly produce its second and third models, set to debut in 2021, in larger volumes. Still, it’s a bright spot on the horizon of an otherwise lackluster auto landscape.