In Building an Electric Car, Dyson Goes Its Own Way

Max Conze, CEO of Dyson, doesn’t care that Silicon Valley giants like Apple and Google’s Waymo have abandoned plans to make their own cars. That’s their problem. It’s no deterrent to Dyson’s ambitious plan to leap from vacuums to its own electric vehicle by 2020.

Dyson, which has built millions of electric batteries for its home appliances, could go the easy route, and make an electric car battery to sell to automakers. But that’s too small potatoes for the £2.5 billion-revenue company. “We like solving problems with products,” Conze says. “Yes, we could be the developer of the most efficient battery, but that’s not what excites us as much as using technology to come up with a product that can really make a difference.”

Building a vehicle won’t be easy. In 2016, after seven years of developing self-driving technology, Google abandoned plans to build its own jelly-bean pod cars, and partnered with Chrysler for the metal-bending part of the equation. Over the summer, Apple scaled back its self-driving operations, reportedly because the project proved too difficult. Software-focused startups ranging from Uber and Lyft to Cruise Automation and Argo AI have partnered with Big Auto for similar reasons. The only Silicon Valley company to actually make a car, Tesla, has been late to deliver every new model it has launched.

But Dyson isn’t interested in partnering. “We want to do our own thing; we want to do it our own way,” Conze says. Naturally, the Malmesbury, UK, company will work with suppliers, he says, “but we want to do a Dyson car the way that we think it needs to be done, and that requires us to have the engineering that can do the car end-to-end and also to own the manufacturing.”

Unlike other auto newcomers, however, Dyson does not feel compelled to develop its own self- driving technology. Dyson historically has not focused on software, though in recent years it has hired 600 software engineers to work on things like artificial intelligence and applications for its robot vacuum. Conze says he believes Dyson will be able to buy “off the shelf” software in coming years to give its vehicles basic autonomous features like lane-keeping technology.

The company has hired 400 engineers and committed £2 billion to its car project. That’s a small fraction of the $10 billion or more that companies such as Daimler and Tesla are spending on electric and autonomous vehicles.

Still, Conze believes Dyson can apply its expertise in batteries, energy-efficient motors, and air flow to vehicles. There are plenty of other areas in which Dyson will need to gain expertise, Conze notes, but “that’s kind of the joy in doing this to some extent.” He says the company had no expertise in motors a decade ago, and now makes 10 million of what it calls “digital” motors, which spin at high speeds, per year in its factories. The company had no expertise in hair dryers before building its Supersonic hair dryer, which launched last year and has sold more than 1 million units.

As with many bold, possibly naïve innovators, Dyson believes its outsider status gives it a leg up. “Most of the incumbent advantages in the car industry today become a disadvantage very quickly because you’re sitting on infrastructure and know-how for the cars of yesterday, not the cars of tomorrow,” Conze says. “If you know a lot about combustion engines, there is very, very little transferable knowledge from building combustion engines to building electric engines.”

Increasing the distance electric vehicles can drive between charges is a top priority for Dyson. Conze expects Dyson’s vehicles to have 50 percent to 100 percent greater range than existing offerings, though he declines to specify what that means. (Many models top out around 100 miles of battery-only driving; Tesla’s Model S goes up to 315 miles.) Dyson doesn’t expect to invest in charging infrastructure because cars with greater range won’t need to recharge as often.

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