Dyson bets on electric cars to shake up industry

Peter Campbell, Michael Pooler
James Dyson poses for a portrait at the Dyson vacuum cleaner factory in Malmesbury, England.
David Levenson | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

In the skies above Hullavington airfield in south-west England, there was a time when trainee parachutists would leap out of aircraft into the void, trusting in the kit strapped to their backs to save them from falling to earth.

The former RAF base's current inhabitant, Dyson, is embarking on its own adventure fraught with peril: a £2bn project to develop and build electric cars from scratch.

The UK company is betting on its ingenuity, engineering skills and technology to save it from falling to earth in its audacious attempt to break into the global automotive industry.

"A car's a huge challenge," founder James Dyson told the Financial Times at the company's nearby Malmesbury headquarters.

The £2bn gamble is the appliance maker's boldest move yet; one that will either grow to define the brand as it dwarfs its other products that range from vacuum cleaners to hair dryers, or drain its resources and potentially plunge it into oblivion.

Through interviews with more than 20 people, the FT has gleaned details about the project's scope and current status, including learning that Dyson is considering excluding its world-leading "solid state" battery technology from its debut model.

Dyson declined to confirm many of the details in this report.

The company is initially planning a range of three vehicles, according to two people.

The first car will be used to establish a route to market, a supply chain and a potential customer base. Because of this, the vehicle will have a relatively low production run — in the single-digit thousands, three people said.

The second and third vehicles, released later, will aim to be substantially higher volume.

"Even with a low-volume vehicle, they can make a business case and they will learn a tremendous amount about how to build a vehicle," says Philippe Houchois, an automotive analyst at Jefferies investment bank.

Dyson has worked extensively on lightweight materials, leading several people to speculate the first vehicle may be substantially comprised of plastics rather than metals, something usually reserved for high-end supercars.

This would make the cars lighter — important because of the weight of electric batteries — but also allowing for more inventive designs.

When announcing the project last September, Sir James said the first car would look "quite different" to any currently on the market.

Crucially, Dyson is considering using lithium ion batteries rather than solid state in the first car, according to three people.

Although the company has not confirmed a decision, a choice not to use solid state would indicate a scaling back in the technical ambitions for its first vehicle.

The aim is to use solid state in the two future models, one person with sight of the plans said.

Solid state batteries, which Dyson has been developing for years, are a step change beyond lithium ion technology, with the ability to drive further and charge faster.

Sir James Dyson with one of his Dyson inventions.
Sylvain Gaboury | FilmMagic | Getty Images

While many major car manufacturers are developing the technology, only Toyota has laid out a timeline to release a solid state car before 2025.

That means Dyson has the potential to be first to market with a technology widely hailed as the future of electric cars.

But ditching solid state in the first model would give Dyson a better chance of hitting its target of getting the vehicle to market by 2021, says Mr Houchois at Jefferies.

"They want to control the variables. What they don't want to be is a Tesla that over-promises and then delivers two to three years late."

Sir James told the FT the company has been "investing heavily in new battery technology, solid state battery technology . . . but those sorts of technologies can take some time to get there."

But the entrepreneur declined to give specific details of its battery plans, or confirm FT reports about the decision. "We're not talking about what we're doing," he says.

The company has pledged to invest £1bn into its battery development, and another £1bn into the car venture itself.

Sir James remains confident it will hit its target of releasing a car in 2020 or 2021.

Yet the timeline is extremely ambitious, especially since the key decision over a manufacturing site has yet to be made. The UK remains in serious contention for a manufacturing location, Sir James insists, along with Singapore, Malaysia and China.

It is thought two UK sites are being considered, one in Wales and one in Wiltshire, according to discussions with local agencies and people familiar with Dyson's plans.

However, several factors point against deciding to locate in Britain.

Despite asking for financial support from the UK government, conversations with officials have failed to yield more funding on top of a £16m grant Dyson received for its battery development.

Sir James expects China to be the company's largest market for its cars — something that would by implication favour one of the Far Eastern nations where Dyson currently has manufacturing operations, such as Singapore or Malaysia.

The availability of local skills in electronics and battery technology are also a major factor, he said.

"You've got to do it where it's commercially the best place to do it," he says, adding the final manufacturing decision will be taken before the summer.

Singapore, where Dyson has manufacturing capacity, is thought to be favoured by the business, according to multiple people.

The group has also been heavily recruiting potential sales staff in China, according to two people in the country.

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But with that crucial piece in the puzzle still missing, some in the industry doubt whether the company can have its cars, and its suppliers, ready in time.

"Whether you're a Dyson or a Toyota it takes 18 months to tool for headlights," says one person who has worked with Dyson on its project, while selecting suppliers can also take up to two years.

Dyson aims to lean less heavily on suppliers than traditional carmakers, partly because of a penchant for making components in house, and partly because electric cars contain substantially fewer bits than their combustion engine counterparts.

The group already produces electric motors, which turn the wheels, as well as battery cells in-house, and is investing heavily in software development, an increasingly important part of modern cars.

In the past six months, Dyson has held extensive talks with some of the industry's largest suppliers.

In some of the meetings the company was vague or unclear about what it was specifically after, according to several people who took part in discussions.

"They have tended to keep all the of the right people in house," says one person who has advised the group. "But that approach doesn't work in autos, where more of the work is outsourced."

Even so, as a maker of domestic appliances, Dyson does have long experience of running a global supply chain and manufacturing operations — something that has caused significant problems for fresh industry entrants such as Tesla.

"He's not a Silicon Valley start-up, he understands manufacturing," says one long-time supplier to the company.

Current suppliers, while fiercely loyal, also warn against underestimating the company.

"I get the feeling that he's much more advanced than we're led to believe," says one supplier, who has been involved in the automotive project.

"He's either completely misaligned himself, or he's better organised than anyone in the market expects."