Like all electric cars, he says, efficiency and aerodynamism will be paramount. (This is why Teslas have door handles that sit flush; even the smallest drag depletes battery range. Dyson points out that his company are already experts in airflow.)
The main thing, Dyson says, is that the idea of a car will need to be rethought. A Dyson car shouldn’t be built like a car with an internal combustion engine, as all the others are (“This new technology is different and the cars should be different”). Its look, like all Dyson products, will be dictated by its engineering. And like all Dyson products, says Dyson, the company would only do it if it felt it could do something that radically rethinks what that thing fundamentally is.
“It’s a dream come true for James,” says concept director Stephen Courtney. “It’s got so many touch points. It’s massive. And, yes, it means for a while we do less other stuff, because we’re going to focus on this one real big bet.”Airblade hand-dryer: Dyson has said that instead of rubber windscreen wipers, which “brush the muck back and forth”, the technology in its hand-dryer, which scrapes water from your hands with fine 400mph jets, could be used to wipe the windscreen instead.
I ask Courtney if it feels like a bet. “It’s always risky. You don’t know what you don’t know. You hear Toyota are having huge problems just because of a car mat or something. But companies that don’t push the boat out shrink. So we take big risks.” What it’s working on for the car, says Courtney, “involves all sorts of exciting stuff”.
But the main reason, Dyson says, was down to a rare investment he’d made around six years ago, in buying a company that was rumoured to have made a breakthrough in the cutting-edge area of solid-state batteries. A technology – if it worked, if it could be mass-produced – that is not only much safer than current lithium ion battery technology, but could, potentially, provide double the range of any existing electric car on the market, while also taking up less space. If it worked, it would be transformative.
“I came across,” Dyson says, “this little company in Michigan...”
Who is James Dyson?
He is a man who, most famously, supported by his wife’s salary as an art teacher, spent five years in his garage making 5,127 prototypes for his first vacuum cleaner.
He is a man who refuses to send more than six emails a day, on the basis that it means he will therefore get no more than six in return (“That’s Parkinson’s law,” he says, which has nothing to do with Michael, but everything to do with work expanding to fill the available time). When we meet, in the late afternoon, he’s sent exactly one. “I haven’t got time to send emails.”
Despite the fact that the Dyson campus is now 3,500 people strong, covers 56 acres and nine buildings, he disavows, I’m told, the use of maps, on the basis that people should get lost and therefore talk to each other. This is also why Dyson disapproves of email. (It is also why several company staff tell me they often get lost.)
He still arrives early, leaves late and, I’m told, was the only person who attempted to get in the building during the “beast from the east” cold snap in February 2018, when everyone else in Malmesbury was snowed in and the building was shut. (“We got a call,” a Dyson PR tells me, “saying, ‘James is trying to get into the building.’” Dyson: “Yes, that’s true. I did try to do that.”)
He was annoyed when Tony Blair coined the term “creative industries” (“That really annoyed me, because they weren’t industries. Publishing isn’t an industry. They don’t make things”). He currently owns more land in England than the Queen.
There are sleepless nights now. This car really matters to me. It’s a big deal
He is an unashamed engineer and capitalist, one who has backed Brexit, he says, for the good of UK companies, which is perhaps easier when you’re worth £9.5bn and your No1 emerging market is the Far East.
How does he think Brexit is panning out?
“I would just walk away. We have offered lots. They’ve offered nothing. They’ve made a huge fuss about Ireland, which is none of their business. We are walking away and if you want to sell your cars and washing machines and your wine and Champagne to us, we’ll talk, but when you behave like this, we will not talk to you. The fast-expanding markets are in the Far East. Europe is declining. I have always said the Commonwealth countries are the ones we should be trading with first. They speak English. They used to like us. We understand them. They are huge, rich markets – Australia, Canada, India. Why aren’t we concentrating on those?”
His manufacturing plants remain in Singapore and Malaysia. Couldn’t they be in Britain?
“No. In Singapore 40 per cent of all graduates are engineers. They encourage it. They don’t encourage it here.” So not because it’s cheaper? “In Singapore the average wage is double that in England and the land four times the price.” It is fair to say that neither of these things are true of Malaysia.
He has not yet, he says, made a call on where the Dyson car will be made. “But I’ll have to soon.”
Dyson does not believe that businesses should pay tax on profits. He believes it should be far easier to fire people.
The culture at Dyson remains unique. Everything, including PR and marketing, remains in-house, virtually unheard of for a company of its size. It doesn’t have product designers; it has engineers who are asked to also think about design. “I hope we teach design here by osmosis.”
Dyson has a mantra: the lightbulb moment is rarely the lightbulb moment. “It’s how you make it work and that’s where the inventing comes in.”
And he is uncommonly patient. When Mike Aldred was hired by Dyson, along with his entire university research group, to build the robot vacuum, he set them a deadline of three years, which they met. “And it worked,” says Aldred. “It was better than anything else on the market. It was fantastic.”
But it was a little too heavy and wasn’t easy to manufacture, so Dyson said to them, “Let’s learn the lessons from this and start again.”
It would be another 14 years before Aldred produced one to Dyson’s liking.
Dyson and Musk are throwbacks in an age of Silicon Valley app unicorns
Most simply and perhaps, seen from a distance, most importantly, Dyson is, along with Elon Musk, something of a throwback. In an age when Silicon Valley app inventors become overnight “unicorns” (ie, companies worth more than $1bn) – apps that often aim to connect people, but just as often result in the spread of low-wage work with no contracts, fewer guarantees and, on a deeper level, only pull people apart – Dyson remains a very British holdout. The inventor who still invents things.
“I like real products that do things,” he says simply, “ones that make life better. I’d much rather do that than develop software.”
Dyson still insists that everyone at his HQ makes physical prototypes of everything they do. He is not a fan of computer modelling. “When someone gives you a graph with results,” he says, “you don’t get it. You don’t see what went wrong. You need to see it fail.”
When testing its hair-dryer, industry standard dictated Dyson merely needed to trial how it dried a damp cloth. Instead, Dyson bought up every strand of hair on sale in the country – some 1,100 miles.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Dyson, the company, is this: just 12 years ago, it was yet to produce anything that wasn’t a vacuum cleaner. Currently, Dyson estimates, it has around 200 projects actively being worked on in R&D, in a building made up of two-way mirrors and boasting fingerprint access. I was not allowed in.
Many of these projects concern the car. Four hundred staff work on it. Three hundred new staff are currently being hired. Just five years ago, Dyson says, it had half that. Five years before that, a handful.
It now invests £8m a week in research and development and has recently founded a Dyson university at their Technology Campus in Malmesbury, in order to check what Dyson sees as an imbalance in UK engineering graduates. From 2,500 staff eight years ago, it now employs 11,750 people around the world.
When I met Dyson, the first question I asked him was what kind of a company is his company now? A long answer ends with: “We’re a technology company, taking bigger and bigger bets on technology.”
In April he told Wired, “I don’t choose glamorous products [such as] iPhones, but products that people hate or almost despise.” Yet one senior Dyson staffer told me that, actually, “One of James’ biggest bugbears is screens breaking on phones. He’s like, ‘Why are they making phones they need to have in a case? I spent £700 on this phone.’” A senior Dyson engineer will later confide to me, “I think if we wanted to do a phone, we could probably do one.”
And, finally, Dyson is someone who still has sleepless nights.
He is often, he says, “Worrying, thinking, trying to solve problems... There are sleepless nights now. This car really matters to me. It really matters to all of us here. It’s a big deal. We want to get it right.”
At 71, he says, “I’m working harder than I ever have in my life.”
"I think electric planes... batteries and planes are important."
The first cars were electric. We may not think it, but motorised power started clean. In the 19th century, carriages went horse-free using lead-acid batteries. Yet, as they boasted a top speed of around 9mph and a range of about 20 miles, they did not stay this way.
The first modern mass-produced electric car was made in the US by General Motors (GM) in 1996, following a California state mandate that dictated the seven major car companies had to offer electric vehicles in order to be allowed to sell their regular petrol cars.
Called the EV1, it was no powerhouse – it had a range of up to 100 miles and a top speed of 80mph – yet soon caught on with enthusiasts, who leased them for $300 a month (GM didn’t give the option to buy). As soon as the mandate was overturned, however, in 2002, GM called all the cars back, had about 40 models deactivated and sent to museums, 20 donated abroad for education and the rest crushed.
Californian filmmaker Chris Paine captured this early EV struggle in his 2006 documentary Who Killed The Electric Car? I meet him in London, where he is spending his summer holiday, outside the British Museum, where he is sightseeing.
While the ending of that documentary, he says, filled him with despair (“There was so much maleficence”), no sooner had he finished it than he began hearing what someone called Elon Musk was doing at a Silicon Valley startup called Tesla.
The follow-up film, Revenge Of The Electric Car, in 2011, charted Musk’s early struggles (a standout moment sees Paine following a horrified Musk around a warehouse full of faulty Teslas, each needing a different repair before they could be sent to customers and Paine spotting his own waiting there), along with the likes of Nissan (with the Leaf) and GM (with the Chevrolet Volt), as the EV race began in earnest. And now, he says, “Everyone is on board. No one wants to be left behind. It’s coming, big time. So I’ll have to do one a third [film]... Hey, in fact, we should put Dyson in it. Tell him that I’m interested.”
The car industry is tough. Maybe Dyson has a miracle in his back pocket
What was his reaction to Dyson getting into the EV race? “Awesome. So awesome.” Paine is an EV fan. “I wish he’d have gotten in earlier. But he’s waiting for a moment and this is his moment.”
Having seen Musk’s money troubles at Tesla, does Paine think the stated £2.5bn investment by Dyson is realistic to create a car?
“Oh, no. He’ll have to raise more money than that. It takes so much money, because you have to do compliance. You’ve got so many unknowns, even money for handling liability lawsuits. The car industry is tough.”
Dyson has about £9.5bn. Is that enough? “They could always borrow some,” he says.
Paine asks a rhetorical question: do I know how many car companies were started in the US between 1900 and today? No. “It’s a huge number,” he says. “And you know how many are left? About ten.”
He ponders: “I mean, maybe he’s got some kind of miracle in his back pocket.”
The Michigan battery company Dyson purchased in 2015 for £15m was Sakti3 and was Dyson’s first ever outside investment. Its founder, Ann Marie Sastry, visited the White House that year for its “Demo Day”. There, Barack Obama, upon learning that her company was working on a way to mass-produce this new technology of solid-state batteries asked her, “Have you solved it?” If she had, it would easily blow Tesla’s battery technology out of the water.
“We think so,” she replied, before adding, “We just had an investment from Dyson...”
In April last year, Dyson ditched all the patents that Sakti3 had filed while working out of the University Of Michigan, causing hysterical reactions in the tech press, with some claiming that Dyson had given up on the technology and that its purchase was now worth “little more than the value of the equipment in Sakit3’s Ann Arbor laboratory”.
Yet a battery expert I spoke to – who asked not to be named as he is working on rival solid-state battery technology – said that Dyson ditching those patents suggests quite the opposite.
“I think they’ve built on the technology. Not necessarily that they’ve gone in a different direction, but they have evolved it. I think he must have developed it into a different place. I think he’s moving towards something he believes he can launch.”
In a patent filed by Dyson Technology Limited some months before, UK patent application No2548361, one titled “Method Of Fabricating An Energy Storage Device”, after pages of technical information, states the following: “The invention provides a simple, fast and low-cost way of producing a solid-state cell.”
Musk had speculated that a battery breakthrough wasn’t about to happen “any time soon”. The patent, however, suggests it’s much sooner than he thinks.
So, I ask Dyson, is it ready?
“We hope so,” he says, not quite committing. “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.”
Has he ever met Musk, I wonder?
What does he think of him, generally? “I don’t want to pass an opinion,” Dyson replies.
Unlike Musk’s Tesla – which, like all car manufacturers, sources its parts from a variety of suppliers, something that in Tesla’s case has contributed to its well-publicised production problems – Dyson is planning the unusual step of making every part itself.
“Well, he’s not going to do every part,” says Paine when I tell him this at the British Museum. “He has to have a tyre maker.” (Dyson, however, suggests otherwise, as he plans to improve tyres too: “We ought to make tyres quieter.”)
It could also make Dyson’s controversial Brexit stance his secret weapon: increased EU tariffs could radically increase the cost of a car that sources parts across Europe. Dyson, manufacturing almost everything itself, possibly in Britain, possibly in China or Malaysia or Singapore, wouldn’t be affected in the slightest.Dyson files new patents every week, but here’s how its first electric car could crib from past successes.
“It would be easy to over-engineer a car,” he says, “I want to make it lean engineering.”
Does a fully working Dyson car exist?
“Well, no. There will be one soon. But not yet, not a complete running car at the moment, no.”
Is 2020 still realistic for the first car?
“Yes. In 2020 we’ll launch it and actually sell it in 2020 or 2021.”
Dyson speaks about the car as a dream project, one years in the making, one that combines everything Dyson has ever done. But, I’m told, with the solid-state technology, there might be a bigger dream to come.
When I ask the individual working on rival solid-state battery technology what the main application would be, he doesn’t dwell on cars, but planes.
“I would say aviation,” he says. “Because they’re so safe. Unlike lithium ion [batteries], they’re not flammable. If your laptop or your car catches fire, that’s bad. But on a plane, that’s a different league. And so for the aerospace industry that would be really interesting.”
At the campus in Malmesbury, Dyson – a self-confessed plane fanatic – has a Harrier Jump Jet, saved from the sea, outside the main entrance, a Concorde engine in a breakout space, and an ex-RAF XM173 that hangs from the ceiling in the canteen (I’m told when it was first installed people were wary of sitting underneath and so would form a neat plane-shaped outline around it). Two years ago, at the annual company fancy-dress party, I’m told Dyson went as one of the Wright brothers. Last year, he went as a pilot.
As I’m about to leave, Dyson shows me a map of the two huge buildings in the village of Hullavington, not far from the main Malmesbury campus, to where production of the car will soon move – they are huge Second World War aircraft hangers, positioned next to a runway – the site spans a massive 750 acres. The runway, he says, is staying.
Could we see, I ask, a Dyson electric plane at some point?
“Yeah,” he replies simply and quite surprisingly with a grin. “Yeah... I think electric planes... batteries and planes are important.”
And, after all, what an irony it would be: that Dyson, that most British and domestic and utilitarian of companies, one whose products we’re so used to using while looking down, may suddenly make us look to the skies.Source