Dyson’s Electric Vehicle: An Example of Why Staying in Your Own Lane is Often a Good Idea

2 weeks ago by Luke James

In early October, Dyson announced that it had scrapped a project to build electric vehicles due to problems surrounding commercial viability.

For some Dyson employees, the news of Dyson abandoning its electric vehicle (EV) project was a surprise; for others, it was an inevitability. At around 4pm on the 10th of October, hundreds of Dyson staff poured out of the company’s development facility in Hullavington, Wiltshire, pondering their future after news of Dyson’s cancellation of its EV project broke via email.

Dyson, one of the UK’s most famous technology companies, founded in 1991 and revered for its household appliances and related technologies, came very close to finishing and unveiling its EV; however, it fell short of the mark. According to Dyson’s founder and chief executive, James Dyson, the project was scrapped because the company “simply cannot make [the EV] commercially viable”.

 

A green symbol of a plug-in electric vehicle

‘Pulling the plug’ on Dyson electric cars. A green symbol of a plug-in electric vehicle (aka PEV), painted on a road. Image Credit: Pixabay.

 

Dyson’s EV Project: What Happened?

The project was a major part of Dyson’s operations: so major, in fact, that the company allocated £550m to the redevelopment of the RAF Hullavington airfield into its EV R&D development and testing facility. The project also employed 500 UK workers and the company planned to develop more than £2bn towards it: £1bn towards building the car and the other £1bn towards developing the required electric batteries.

Despite the project’s demise, Dyson has remained tight-lipped over the details of its EV. The company has only described its pure-electric model vehicle as being “a fantastic car” that would feature a solid-state battery. While none of the details surrounding Dyson’s pure-electric cars have been revealed, it is widely thought that they would have been SUV-style, four-door cars that would have launched during 2020.

Assuming that Dyson’s EV technology would have been mature enough for mass production, a solid-state battery would theoretically have enabled much faster charging times than equivalent Li-ion battery packs.

While Dyson has not ruled out the option sell its now-defunct EV division, a statement from the company in October confirmed that its initial search for a buyer “has, unfortunately, been unsuccessful”. 

At the time of writing, Dyson has no plans to completely depart from its electric car development facility. The company has pledged that it will “continue to expand” both its Hullavington site and its research into solid-state battery systems. It is unknown what Dyson’s plans are, if any, for such power technology—in fact, it’s unclear whether the company has any potential future automotive applications in store at all.

 

The Major Challenges for EVs and EV Development

There is no doubting that EVs are growing in popularity and use, with many vehicle manufacturers pouring significant time, energy, money, and research into creating electrified vehicles.

That said, while sales of EVs are climbing rapidly, they still cost more to make and have much lower profit margins than conventional cars. This makes it difficult for companies without inherent automotive expertise to succeed in the EV market, and Dyson has so far proved a prime example of this. It is not only down to cost, either: there are several other obstacles for manufacturers to overcome, including those in the next three sections.

 

Adopting EVs Will Take Time

The fact is that, despite their growing popularity, EVs make up only a small proportion of cars on the road. In the UK, for example, the all-electric Tesla Model 3 is one of the country’s best-selling cars… but this, alongside other EVs, only make up around 1.1% of new car sales.

For more widespread adoption, bigger changes are needed: there will need to be more places to charge electric vehicles, more incentives to buy them, and changes to the tax system, to name a few. Buyers—both individuals and businesses—must also be convinced that EVs are right for their needs. This is one of the many big issues facing EV manufacturers to date.

The fact that EVs make up only a tiny proportion of new car sales is not good news for your ‘non-traditional’ car manufacturers: the economies of scale do not tip in their favour.

 

A diagram of Dyson's planned electric vehicles.

From concept to incompletion. Dyson's 2019 patent diagram for their now-abandoned electric car project. Image Credit: Dyson, via The Guardian.

 

The Right Technology Needs to Be Backed

While there are widespread developments in battery and charging technology taking place, including that by Dyson of course, there still remains lots of uncertainty. Which charging technologies and which battery technologies will become the new standard?

It is this uncertainty about which approaches, which processes, and which technologies will become the ‘go-to’ that is slowing down private sector investment and R&D. Nobody wants to bet on the wrong horse, and those that want to develop EVs must take this into consideration.

Developing a new battery technology—only for it to be nullified by a different one that comes along further down the line—would spell a critical blow for even the largest of vehicle manufacturers, let alone others.

 

The Future May Not Be in Motorised Vehicles

Much of the world is chasing a completely zero-carbon future. While this is admirable, it is a seriously lofty goal—a goal that cannot be achieved in the automotive industry, for as long as vehicles, even those that are 100% electric, are still using motor engines.

The sourcing materials and minerals used for batteries, the dismantling and disposing of batteries that have deteriorated, and the building and delivering of EVs all produce substantial carbon emissions. Although EVs do help reduce carbon emissions, a large shift away from all motorised vehicle types is needed to fundamentally mitigate automotive’s contribution to climate change.

 

The Final Verdict: Stick to What You’re Good At

The above challenges and more make it very difficult to develop electric vehicles, and Dyson is an example of a company that has so far proved was out of its depth.

While major manufacturers like Volkswagen and Jaguar Land Rover can afford to pump tens of billions into their EVs—safe in the knowledge that their economies of scale will ultimately cheapen the tech and generate returns—both smaller automotive manufacturers and manufacturers of other technologies cannot.

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