Suckers for electric cars

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Suckers for electric cars.

Vacuum cleaner company takes on electric car juggernauts.

Social media condemned British vacuum-cleaner company Dyson when it recently announced plans to bring an electric car to market by 2020. 

Comments like ‘what the hell would Dyson know about cars?’ and ‘wow, a car that’ll remove dog hair while you drive’ and ‘presumably it won’t suck’ typified the reactions to the idea a vacuum-cleaner maker would try to compete with established car manufacturers.

I must admit I too wondered whether I’d ever set foot inside a Dyson-produced vehicle.

But the more I read of the ambitions of entrepreneur and engineer Sir James Dyson, the more I was prepared to give the benefit of the doubt.

After all, Elon Musk had a technology background, launching Paypal and Space X before moving on to build the electric car juggernaut, Tesla.

Dyson is not a Johnny-come-lately jumping on the electric car bandwagon.

He has had ambitions of tackling the problem of air pollution for decades, and applied various innovations and inventions to his company’s vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, air conditioners and commercial hand dryers.

In 1990, his company developed a cyclonic filter that could be fitted to a car’s exhaust system to trap particulates.

In 2015 Dyson bought solid-state battery company Sakti3, a business spun out of the University of Michigan which hopes to double the life of batteries.

Sakti3 specialises in solid state batteries which have the potential to hold more charge than the current lithium-ion batteries (which for electric cars means a greater range per charge).

At the time of the acquisition, Dyson talked of Satki3’s breakthrough battery technology. Most thought this technology was aimed at providing power for products such as the company’s cordless vacuum cleaners which account for half of its global sales. But Dyson had a bigger vision.

In 2016 Dyson received a £16 million grant from the UK government towards battery research, and the company’s ambitions in the automotive sector were finally revealed.

Dyson’s commitment to building an electric car — a commitment involving £2 billion and 400 employees over the next three years — was criticised by many as ‘the ego-trip of a billionaire’.

Elon Musk encountered the same criticism when he outlined his Tesla vision. His company is now valued at nearly US$60 billion, Tesla cars have achieved cult status and he has an order book of around 400,000 cars worth US$1.4 billion if delivered.

The electric car market is increasingly crowded and if the participants’ claims are to be believed, we car enthusiasts are going to be spoiled for choice.

The question is which of the competitors is going to win the race.

Will it be the established car manufacturers who know how to build a car and ‘simply’ need to swap their combustion motors for electric batteries?

Will it be technology companies like Tesla, Apple or Google whose innovation, design, and marketing prowess compensates for what will likely be a high retail price?

Or will it be non-automotive manufacturing companies like Dyson that use their engineering capabilities to become significant disrupters in the automotive sector?

It will be an interesting race — not least because these entrepreneurs are in it for the bragging rights as much as for the money.

Musk has been known to taunt newcomers and established auto companies, encouraging them to spend more money to speed the growth of sustainable transportation. Dyson looks set to be equally competitive.

Regardless of who gets to the finishing line first, the real winners will be consumers and the environment.

It will nevertheless be fun to watch.


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