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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Dyson steps up a gear with £2bn electric car production plan

UK-based firm, led by billionaire investor Sir James, has reputation for expensive hardware - and cars could be next

James Dyson wants develop and market electric cars. AFP
James Dyson wants develop and market electric cars. AFP

Renowned for its innovative vacuum cleaners, fans and hairdryers, Sir James Dyson grew his eponymous UK-based company from a hobby to an industry leader.

The firm has a long-established reputation for unusual innovations; only last week it released a high-end hairdryer that retails for £399.99 decorated with Italian gold leaves “each chosen for its colour and lustre”.

But 2020 could prove to be the company's most significant year yet. That is when Dyson aims to enter into the congested electric race with what is promised will be a “radically different” product than rival models - and it is planning to spend £2 billion (Dh9.57bn) to make it a reality.

This month, the company unveiled plans to turn a former airfield into a vehicle-testing site. The technology centre at the former Hullavington Airfield in England will bring Dyson's EV investment so far to £200 million to create engineering facilities and over 13km of test tracks, Dyson said.

The British company is also involved in developing engineering talent worldwide. To reward and inspire established and budding engineers, in 2007 the company inaugurated the James Dyson Award, now held in 27 countries, and in March it announced the launch of the competition in the UAE - the first Arab country selected.

While Dyson, founded in 1991 in the small south-west English town of Malmesbury, Wiltshire, has released few details of its test electric car prototypes, one of its ambitions has already caught the imagination: it intends to use solid-state batteries to power its vehicles, which it says are smaller and more efficient, while competitors rely on lithium-ion battery technology.

“The notable differentiator, if Dyson can successfully commercialise it, is the solid-state battery. This replaces the liquid or gel electrolyte between the electrodes with a solid ceramic material. This would potentially enable much faster and safer charging,” Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst at Navigant Research, tells The National.

“If Dyson can successfully manufacture solid-state cells, it could be a game changer. If they have to revert back to existing cell types, they will be just another player among an ever-increasing crowd in the premium [electric vehicle] landscape,” he points out.

Dyson is not alone in that endeavour though; Toyota is also working on solid-state batteries and last year said it hoped to have them in EVs by the early 2020s.

Despite its vast financial resources, ability to generate revenue and engineering brilliance there was still some surprise the UK company moved into the market. Over the coming years motor industry giants such as Renault-Nissan, BMW and VW plan to expand production of their own electric car ranges. They join Tesla, founded in 2003 and led by the headline-grabbing Elon Musk, which is now entering the mass market with its Model 3, which sells for a comparatively modest £27,000, after the success of its high-end Model S, which starts at £60,000 and goes up to a supercar-level £140,000.

bz1309 electric vehicles
Growing market

On Tuesday, meanwhile, Aston Martin said its second major UK manufacturing facility will become the luxury brand’s centre for electrification.

The Rapide E will be built in Wales when production commences in 2019. It will be Aston Martin’s first all-electric production model.

“In the long-term I think some legacy auto brands will succeed, others will fail. This is where there is opportunity for newcomers like Dyson," Matt Teske, the founder of Chargeway, tells The National.

Chargeway is a software platform, mobile app and communications solution designed to resolve one of the biggest barriers to electric car adoption: the highly complicated process of fuelling vehicles.

“Dyson, being known for innovative design, can certainly leverage their engineering knowledge and attempt to compete. That said, making cars is hard. Design alone cannot overcome some of the large challenges that exist within car production,” says Mr Teske.

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While remaining tight-lipped over plans, Dyson, which is still privately owned by Sir James, seems to be hedging its bets on the solid-state battery. There are fears the innovation may not be the miracle it seems. Even Sir James has said the solid-state cell in is not yet fully developed.

“We hope so. But you never know with these things. Problems can suddenly arise. It’s a complex thing to develop and it’s an even more complex thing to make,” he told GQ magazine.

Taking on the push into the electric car game is no walk in the park for Sir James, who at 71 has said he is feeling the strain of working harder than ever.

That will not be eased by the task of scaling the company's car battery technology of choice.

“While many researchers have produced solid-state cells for bench testing, virtually all of them that I have spoken with say the lower conductivity of the solid electrolyte makes it more difficult to get adequate power from the cell,” says Mr Abuelsamid.

“This makes it challenging to scale up to a size suitable for automotive applications. Mass manufacturing is also a challenge,” he says.

“Despite Dyson’s experience in manufacturing and distribution of consumer products, the automotive space is quite different. Vehicles operate in a vastly more complex and variable environment with potentially much harsher conditions than a vacuum cleaner or blow dryer,” says Mr Abuelsamid.

Mr Teske says Dyson also has to overcome issues associated with its brand. “I have lost count of how many social media posts have joked that the Dyson electric car will 'suck'. That is not to say Dyson can’t be successful in the transportation space. But it will require a product design that will elicit an emotional response as well as technical specs that prove it is an undeniably smart purchase.”

A determined, if insecure, athlete as a young boy, Sir James once said: “What I’ve learned from running is that the time to push hard is when you’re hurting like crazy and you want to give up. Success is often just around the corner.”

His founding and development of Dyson is testament to that ethos. In the late 1970’s he struggled with his store-bought vacuum cleaner, aggravated by its inefficiency. This spurred him to invent a bagless vacuum cleaner that would not lose suction and which would eventually evolve into the first Dyson machine.

From 1979 to 1984, he faced difficulties finding a licensee despite developing over 5,000 prototypes and eventually agreed a deal with a Japanese firm in 1985. The proceeds from this enabled Sir James to create his eponymous company in 1991 and launch the Dyson DC01 vacuum cleaner in Britain in 1993. It would quickly become a bestseller and Dyson prospered, growing rapidly, and making its founder a fortune estimated today at £8.37bn, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire's Index. In 2017, the company reported annual revenues of £3.5bn.

But despite the rapid acceleration of the electric car revolution, EVs still remain a relatively niche market. The new Nissan leaf, a "bargain" attempt at electric cars, also retails at some £27,000. In comparison, the Nissan Micra, the equivalent petrol engine car, costs less than £13,000. The Tesla Model S can go from 0-60 in under three seconds - much faster than almost any other road-going vehicle - buts burns a significant hole in the pocket.

In a recent report on the industry, Barclays bank said gradual improvements in battery technology meant electric cars could well become affordable in the next few years but cautioned that investing in new technology was inherently volatile.

Despite Dyson’s undeniable reputation for innovation and their founder's steely-eyed focus on improvement, Sir James’ has his work cut out realising his latest technological dream.