Dyson Could Clean-Up with Niche EVs

UK brand Dyson, long known for its quirky or innovative takes on consumer electronics, is leaping ahead several degrees of product category into the manufacture of battery electric vehicles.

Led by its namesake, maverick inventor James Dyson, the company’s hopes first became known in early 2016 but it seems Dyson had BEV ambitions before then. The previous year, it made its one – and so far only – acquisition, that of US solid-state vehicle battery start-up Sakti3 for $90M, although Dyson abandoned Sakti3’s core patents before long.

Dyson, which saw a 27% leap in annual net profit to an all-time company record of £801M ($1.04Bn) in 2017, announced early that year it bought Hullavington, a disused Royal Air Force airport near its headquarters in southwest England. The company’s automotive team is now ensconced there and the facility will be used entirely to support the BEV project.

Yet, that’s just the tip of the iceberg – ultimately, the company says it aims to plow around £2Bn ($2.6Bn) into its BEV effort. Hullavington’s two hangars will be used for the project, while different on- and off-road testing facilities will occupy the outdoor space. Dyson has officially stated it wants the property to “quickly become a world-class vehicle testing campus”.

Testing is all well and good. However, broadly speaking the EV market is already crowded and hotly competitive. So, is a Dyson vehicle the fever dream of a mad scientist inventor?

Joshua Cobb, an analyst in the autos practice of Fitch Solutions, doesn’t believe so. “Dyson has the necessary supply chain management experience and is well versed in the manufacturing process and what it takes to get a product to market, albeit with smaller products,” he says. “This knowledge and experience will serve them well to avoid a lot of the mistakes that other relatively new brands (Tesla) have made while learning the ropes.”

Peter Wells, a professor at the Centre for Automotive Industry Researcher at the UK’s Cardiff Business School is a bit more guarded about the company’s prospects. “The leap to the passenger car segment is more challenging than many imagine,” he says. “This is evident from past attempts that have ended in failure [e.g. Samsung in the 1990s and the Sinclair C5 (pictured) in the 1980s] and from current attempts such as Tesla which have achieved sales but not profits. It is hard to match the economies of scale of the major car companies, their market reach and dealership networks, and the depth of engineering talent at their disposal.”

All major automakers currently have an EV product on the road, or at least one on the drawing board. On top of that, Chinese upstarts are coming on strong, charged by their government’s stated goal to ramp up production in the segment.

Dyson turned down a request to be interviewed for this story, with a spokeswoman stating that this was “due to the commercial sensitivities surrounding the project”. She included the most recent press release about Hullavington, which said the company plans for its initial BEV to roll out in 2021 (earlier reports from outside media had that date as 2020).

So, understandably, mum’s the word at Dyson. This hasn’t, of course, stopped outsiders from speculating what shape or shapes the company’s BEV effort might take.

In early 2018, media outlets reported that the company aims to launch not one, not two, but three different electric models. The first would be a sort of pilot vehicle, in order to establish a presence on the market and smooth the way for the other two.

Fitch Solutions’ Cobb is skeptical. “This will be a very inefficient way to utilize the limited capital it currently has available,” he says. “I believe that Dyson will focus on a versatile platform that can be used in three different models and firstly focus on getting a high-end vehicle to market, most likely it will start with an SUV as it looks to establish itself as a mainstream automotive brand. Once it develops its consumer base, then it will follow up the vehicle with a more affordable version and expand its range to include more types (i.e Sports Car and Saloon) similar to the range that Tesla currently offers.”

Cardiff University’s Wells sees certain gaps in the global market. “There are opportunities in so-called L category vehicles in Europe, and Low Speed EVs in China for example; as well as multiple designs of ‘tuk-tuk’ configuration in a host of Asian markets,” he points out. “There are also opportunities in urban delivery vehicles.”

Ultimately, though, it might be another aspect that will decide the success or failure of the company’s push. “More important than the models or segments served is the question of technology,” Wells added. “Dyson as a brand made a reputation based on innovative solutions to long-standing problems; if the company can repeat this in terms of battery and/or powertrain technology then there is a chance to make a distinct niche market.”

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