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Why James Dyson Could Steal Elon Musk’s Electric Car Throne

The British inventor described his vision for “something quite unique and better” than the status quo in a company-wide email this week.

Why James Dyson Could Steal Elon Musk’s Electric Car Throne
[Photo: Heathcliff O Malley/courtesy Dyson]

Sir James Dyson wants to change the world with a “radically different” electric car in 2020. A complete departure from the Teslas and Leafs of the world. Something revolutionary, he says. If I were Musk, I would be wary. If there’s one person who can deliver something that can destroy the exo-martian’s innovation halo, it’s the British mad genius.

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Just six months after announcing a $1.3 billion investment in the development of new battery technology, Dyson declared his intention to make a “radically different” electric car this week. “[W]e finally have the opportunity to bring all our technologies together into a single product,” he wrote in an email to the company that was later made public. “I wanted you to hear it directly from me: Dyson has begun work on a battery electric vehicle, due to be launched by 2020.” According to Bloomberg, Dyson’s car will use the solid-state batteries developed by Sakti3, a company he bought in 2015, instead of the traditional Lithium-Ion batteries that Musk uses in Tesla (the same kind of power storage used in your laptop).

Some may laugh at this idea. “Sure he is the inventor of—arguably—the best vacuum cleaner and hand dryers,” you might say, “but coming up with a radically different electric car that will surprise the world and the auto industry is something completely different.” Well, yes. Maybe. But is that as laughable as believing the man who funded that clusterf–ck of UX atrocities and abysmal customer service known as Paypal could change the industry with Tesla? Musk had no track record on building rockets or electric vehicles when he decided to get into those businesses. Dyson, on the other hand, has a track record as an engineering genius, which has served him to revolutionize languishing markets based on clever engineering alone. And now he also has the deep experience in batteries, electric motors, and fluid dynamics crucial to create the “radically different” design that may eclipse Tesla’s alleged leadership.

“But how is he going to pay for it?,” you ask, “designing, manufacturing, and selling a car costs a lot of money.”

True. Musk initially invested $6.3 million in Tesla from his PayPal booty. After releasing the $109,000 Roadster in 2008—handcrafted from outsourced parts in a Menlo Park, California, warehouse—the U.S. government agreed to loan the company $465 million to mass-manufacture a four-door luxury sedan in 2009 in a factory that Tesla didn’t have at the time. Musk then managed to buy a plant from Toyota for peanuts: $48 million. The rest is history.

Dyson’s bet, meanwhile? A whooping $2 billion. Dyson claims that he will spend that amount in making his vision a reality. In fact, he and a 400-person engineering force have been working on it since 2015. And he’s recruiting even more staff, he says. Even if you adjust for inflation, the size of Dyson’s investment is nothing but impressive compared to Musk’s humble beginnings and his struggle in changing the car market as a newcomer.

And that’s exactly what could be Dyson’s biggest advantage against Tesla. In addition to having a huge pile of cash and the engineering savvy, the British inventor doesn’t have to fight the war that Musk already fought and won. Tesla changed the car battlefield forever. Musk showed that a newbie with no automotive experience can challenge the old dinosaurs with cool design, technology, and marketing from scratch. And, more importantly, he also changed the public perception on electric cars—too expensive, too limited—for the very same reasons.

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As a result, people now accept electric automobiles. They line up to buy them. Many are even willing to pay a premium. Dyson will find a clear launch pad on a clear day if he can deliver on his promise, all thanks to Musk’s sweat and tears.

About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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