The Saga of Dyson’s Electric Car

You may remember a entry I wrote in this blog about the announcement by James Dyson, better known for his cyclone vacuum cleaners, that he intended to develop an electric car.  It was my view that Dyson may have been biting off more than he could chew and that the development of an electric car could be his Sinclair C5 moment.

Well, this week Dyson announced he was scrapping his electric car project as it was commercially unviable.

The Sinclair C5 was the creation of Sir Clive Sinclair who had made millions developing the first generation of home computers.  Sinclair proudly stated that the C5 would be the mass transport solution of the future.  The announcement of the C5 caused significant excitement.  Sinclair was seen as an innovative genius and the success of his computers (although mostly used for gaming) led to a belief that when a mass transport solution was promised, something brilliant would be delivered.

The C5 was an utter disaster; an under-powered, single seat, plastic tricycle which was seen a potentially dangerous in traffic (The head height of the C5 driver was at the exhaust level of buses and HGVs). The C5 was one of the biggest commercial flops of the 1980s.

The similarity between Dyson and Sinclair was the level of hubris.  Both men appeared to believe that they could do no wrong.  Sinclair ignored warnings that he was over-promising as to the capabilities of the C5.  With Dyson it was his contempt for existing car manufacturers. Another similarity was the reliance on experimental battery technologies.

Sinclair had designed a new type of rechargeable battery for the C5; but his design was not ready by the time the C5 went into production.  Although the body of the C5 had been designed by Lotus, the British car manufacturer, Sinclair chose Hoover, the vacuum manufacturer to build it (a decision based on Hoover’s experience dealing with electric motors).

Dyson was pining his hopes on experimental solid state batteries which had never been used commercially.

Perhaps Dyson’s biggest error was his dismissal of existing manufacturers.  He went as far as insulting them at the launch of his electric car, saying he had repeatedly been turned away by car manufacturers who had rejected his ideas out of hand.

Several car manufacturers are also researching solid state batteries, which are smaller and more powerful than traditional lithium batteries.  These company’s already have production capacity and experience of automotive engineering, e.g. steering, suspension, tyres, and brakes.  In all these areas Dyson was starting from scratch in all these areas.

It can cost billions to develop a new car production line.  For existing car manufacturers installing electric motors and batteries is a product adaptation. Dyson’s project was a wholesale diversification from his cyclone vacuums. Dyson’s project was significantly riskier than that of the likes of Volkswagen and Toyota.

As I said in my initial article, Dyson’s best bet was to develop his battery technologies and then enter into a joint=venture with an existing car manufacturer. Trying to develop full production capacity from scratch in a mature market probably exceed his financial muscle.

I take no pleasure in being proven right, especially after Dyson accepted millions in funding from the UK government to develop the car at his Wiltshire design centre. At least 500 people have lost their jobs because of Singapore-based Dyson’s ego.