Vacuum Maker Dyson Eyes Up Electric Car Market

A vacuum maker to build cars? Can they succeed? The short answer is probably yes, says PAT PILCHER.

The path to garnering a fortune usually involves building a better mousetrap than your competitors.

If anyone exemplifies this, it must be UK designer and inventor extraordinaire, James Dyson.

Back in 1979, James purchased what was claimed to be the most powerful vacuum cleaner, only to find it literally didn’t suck. Instead of hoovering up dirt and dust, it pushed it around the room.

A light bulb moment came when James visited an industrial sawmill. There he saw a cyclonic separator – a device used to remove dust from the air. He wondered whether the same principle would work with a vacuum cleaner.

It may have taken Dyson 15 years, and 5127 attempts at testing prototypes before cyclonic vacuum worked, but today it is a global brand. His new vacuum cleaner was a revelation. A carefully balanced design meant it was a pleasure to use. The unique cyclonic design also meant that suction didn’t decrease as its bag-free dustbin filled.

Now, James Dyson is looking to tackle a completely different genre of hardware – the car.

Dyson has so far invested £84 million into a new technology centre at Hullavington Airfield with the restoration of the first two hangars completed. Four hundred members of Dyson’s automotive team have moved into the advanced automotive space and a further three buildings are about to come online. Planning submissions lodged recently also show ambitious plans to transform the airfield into an electric vehicle testing facility. In short, a new car manufacturer has entered the fray.

It’s a logical move for Dyson. With environmental concerns and rising petrol prices pushing electric vehicles (EVs) front and centre, many car makers are throwing their hats into the EV ring.

The multi-billion dollar question, however, is whether a vacuum cleaner manufacturer can survive and thrive as an automaker, and whether Dyson can stay one step ahead of competing automakers?

Dyson has several factors playing in their favour. First is their R&D into batteries. Most of today’s EVs use lithium-Ion batteries. They have a high energy density and their properties are well known. Their downsides, however, are many, perhaps the most widely known being that they are slow to charge. Even a so-called fast charge will see an EV inconveniently parked up and plugged in for several hours.

Lithium-ion batteries are not as robust as many other rechargeable technologies. They need protection from being over-charged or discharged too far. When charging, current levels must be maintained within safe limits. Because of this, they need protection circuitry to ensure they are kept within their safe operating limits.

Lithium-ion batteries suffer from ageing. The number of charge/discharge cycles that the cell can undergo before its performance degrades is finite.

They’re also fragile and need to be stored partially charged (around 40 to 50 percent) and kept in cool storage. Heat can shorten the lifespan of the batteries and decrease their ability to hold a charge.

Overcharge a lithium-ion battery and it can go bang, as the battery’s electrolyte forms tendrils between the cathode and anode, creating a short. This can lead to the same fiery results that feature so prominently on YouTube.

Dyson has spent years tweaking battery designs so that the runtime of their portable vacuum cleaners is extended. The holy grail of power cells Dyson is actively working towards is what is known as solid state batteries.

Solid state batteries offer some significant benefits over their lithium-ion counterparts. They hold more energy for their size, and should, at least in theory, be cheaper to produce than lithium-ion batteries.

The other significant advantage on offer with solid state batteries is that they’re non-flammable and will be able to charge significantly faster than a lithium-ion cell.

In 2015, Dyson acquired battery specialists Sakti3, a spin-off from the University of Michigan. Sakti3 has 94 patents and recently announced they were on the verge of producing a solid state battery with twice the energy density of lithium-ion batteries that could be made at a staggering fifth of their cost.

The stakes are high. Get a battery design wrong, and the subsequent PR nightmares can be enormous (just ask Samsung). Lithium-ion batteries are flammable. They also create a lot of heat. For electric cars with lots of lithium-ion batteries, that means cooling systems are needed.

In an electric car using solid-state batteries, there’s no need for energy consuming and heavy cooling gear. That means more space for batteries, which when combined with the extra energy densities of solid state cells means longer ranges between charges. Then there are the economics: Solid state batteries should be cheaper to make. And there’s the not so insignificant fact that your car won’t catch fire if its cells develop a fault.

Dyson also has a leap on competitors when it comes to electric motor designs. The company uses what they call digital motors in their vacuum cleaners. Those in the know will tell you that these are brushless DC motors which use digital switching to maintain a rotating magnetic field. Either way, these motors are incredibly efficient. Dyson has amassed a considerable amount of knowledge over the years and has ploughed hundreds of millions of dollars and engineering hours into optimising their motor designs.

With the newly launched V10 portable vacuum cleaner, they  optimised the motor to be 20 percent lighter yet 20 percent more powerful than previous models. Once powered up, the V10’s motor can spin at an incredible 125,000rpm. A motor’s weight and the RPM it can produce are likely to figure prominently in EV efficiency and performance.

Unsurprisingly Dyson is talking up a ‘radically different’ type of electric car than what is already on the market. Their first car (due early 2020) is said to be a high-end model that is intended be sold in small numbers. But the company has said they’re going to follow this up with two additional models aimed more at the mass market.

So, can Dyson carve out a niche in the cut-throat EV car market?

Many have tried, and a few have succeeded. Perhaps the highest profile EV manufacturer is Tesla, but others such as Toyota, Honda, General Motors, BMW, Volvo, Porsche and Mercedes are rapidly catching up.

While Dyson is well-placed thanks to investments in batteries, motor design and highly optimised manufacturing processes, they’re going to need all these advantages and more as increasingly affordable, long-range EVs continue to roll out of the factories of major automakers.  

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