Inventor James Dyson has confirmed that his company, best known for its vacuum cleaners, is building an electric car. The project has been almost 30 years in the making, the billionaire wrote in an email to employees.
Early efforts in the 1990s concentrated on making a so-called cyclonic filter that could be fitted onto a vehicle's exhaust system to trap diesel fumes. Dyson said the car industry dismissed his idea, fueling his ambition to go it alone.
"We are not a johnny-come-lately onto the scene of electric cars," he said. "It has been my ambition since 1998 when I was rejected by the industry, which has happily gone on making polluting diesel engines, and governments have gone on allowing it."
Dyson went back to what he does best -- manipulating air. The Dyson vacuum cleaner grew to dominate the high end of the market. The company then came out with AirBlade hand-dryers in 1996 and the Air Multiplier bladeless electric fan in 2009, which evolved into a range of air purifiers, humidifiers and heaters.
Revenue soared from 214 million pounds in 2000 to 2.5 billion pounds ($3.4 billion) last year.
By 2015, the first hints of Dyson's renewed interest in the automotive industry emerged. The company spent $90 million acquiring Sakti3, a Michigan-based designer of solid-state batteries. The startup said it had found a way to produce batteries with twice the energy storage potential of standard lithium ion models, at a half to a third of the cost.
New battery tech
Some researchers disputed those claims and Dyson recently abandoned an agreement to license some of Sakti3's patents from the University of Michigan, which had spun out the startup. But Dyson still has two teams working on this new battery technology.
"Some years ago, observing that automotive firms were not changing their spots, I committed the company to develop new battery technologies," Dyson wrote in the email to employees. "I believed that electrically powered vehicles would solve the vehicle pollution problem."
Dyson said the choice of battery still has to be finalized.
The shift to electric cars has opened the automotive industry up to new entrants. A traditional car has about 30,000 components, compared with just 11,000 for electric vehicles, Goldman Sachs analysts estimate. That's lowered the barriers to entry, with battery expertise becoming a new and important differentiator. In 2016, Dyson pledged to spend 1 billion pounds on battery development over five years, and government filings alluding to his EV plans emerged.
Meanwhile, the company quietly hired a slew of automotive executives. It brought on board former Tesla communications chief Ricardo Reyes, as well as product development and supply chain experts from Aston Martin.
In March, Dyson revealed plans to build a new research and development facility at a former Royal Air Force base near its headquarters in Malmesbury, England. The new site will be the epicenter of the electric car efforts, he said Tuesday.
"The team is already over 400 strong, and we are recruiting aggressively. I'm committed to investing 2 billion pounds on this endeavor." Dyson said in email to employees. "Dyson has begun work on a battery electric vehicle, due to be launched by 2020."
'Not a cheap car'
Dyson said his electric car would be "radically different" than those being designed by other carmakers, including Tesla. "There’s no point doing something that looks like everyone else’s," he said. "It is not a sports car and not a very cheap car."
He said he hopes the vehicle will be just the first of a line of electric vehicles from Dyson and predicted that within a few years electric cars would be the largest source of revenue for the company, eclipsing its existing products.
The car does not yet have a design nor a chassis, Dyson said, and the company had not yet decided where it will be made, beyond ruling out working with the big car companies. "Wherever we make the battery, we'll make the car, that's logical," he said. "So we want to be near our suppliers, we want to be in a place that welcomes us and is friendly to us, and where it is logistically most sensible. And we see a very large market for this car in the Far East."
Reuters contributed to this report