Inside Dyson’s $700 million quest to design an electric car

I’ve always been horrified, even as a child, by the clouds of black smoke emerging from the back of vehicles, especially diesels. As a pedestrian, a cyclist, or in a car following directly in the slipstream of a diesel vehicle, you breathe in a huge volume of this filth. In Britain alone, 34,000 people a year die from inhaling exhaust fumes.

At Dyson, we were developing more efficient batteries by 2014. We had been working on high-performance electric motors for some time. We also had research programs on air purifiers and heaters. We were pursuing a range of new ideas for products including hair care. It occurred to me that what we were developing was the technology and know-how that together spelled the development of an electric car.

When we came to designing our electric car, we knew it had to be special. We wanted a car that was a pleasure to own, drive, and travel in. Every last detail mattered. The plug-in point for the battery recharger had to be as resolved, refined, and elegant as the seats, controls, and steering wheel. Heating and ventilation had to make the very best use of Dyson’s knowledge of airflow and low-energy use. And the batteries had to be the best we could offer, and then some. We looked forward to the day when we could replace lithium-ion batteries with solid-state batteries.

[Photo: Dyson]

N526 (the code name for our electric vehicle) was designed not as a rigidly defined car but as a platform, so we could design other body styles to sit on it. The first model was a seven-seat SUV about the same size as a Range Rover although significantly lower and with a raked back windscreen. At 50 mph, the car would drop itself down on its suspension to take advantage of a lower center of gravity. If driven through floodwater or across tricky terrain, it could be raised to give it extra ground clearance. It could “wade” through water three feet deep, and while I don’t think many owners would willingly ford rivers, people do encounter flooded roads.

The car was exactly 16 feet long, with big 24-inch wheels giving huge ground clearance, helped additionally by the fact that it has a flat bottom. The wheels were one of the most interesting aspects of the car. The bigger the wheels, the less rolling resistance; and you can ride over bumps and potholes more easily. Rolling resistance consumes vital battery power and reduces efficiency and range. The placement and size of the wheels gave us some unexpected advantages in terms of comfort, especially over potholes and bumps.

We worked with virtual reality to imagine and show interiors and to look at our car in comparison with other vehicles. I aimed for an entirely flat floor. I wanted to have the same adjustable and ergonomic front seat also in row two, the rear seats. Why should the rear seats be compromised?

I happen to hate the 1930s armchair look that car seats typically have. I had never come across a comfortable car seat, and I quickly discovered why. The legislation is highly restrictive, with rules stopping you from doing almost anything you would want to do. In particular, they seem to prohibit any softness or yield in the seat. They also assume that in a crash you are shunted 100 millimeters backward, so, in effect, the headrest only comes into effect when you do crash.

Eventually we managed to comply with these rules while also having a comfortable seat. I wanted to be able to see the structure as you do in favorite chairs of mine like the Eames Soft Pad chair. Our seat would have even more pads than the Eames, which also added to its breathability. The exposed frame, which we anodized a bright color, was made from magnesium, which is light and strong, which meant a significant savings in weight.

I wanted the car to be uncluttered both inside and out. The design of our dash and controls was engineered to keep the driver’s eyes on the road at all times. All interacting controls, such as lights, indicators, and audio adjustment for the driver were placed on the steering wheel. There were no controls on the dash, no need to look down there, distracting your eyes from the road.

We used our own air-filtration technology in the car to control its environment, not just in terms of temperature but also to clean the air. A third of the power in electric cars is consumed by heating and air-conditioning, so we went back to basics to find an efficient, lower-power system to save energy, using judiciously placed radiant heat and heat panels, which saved a great deal of battery energy.

[Photo: Dyson]

I did the body design with Pete Gammack. There was no outside studio involved, although we did ask for advice from experienced car people. There are all sorts of tricks involved in designing cars and to begin with we learned these largely by trial and error. We discovered, for example, that when you try to make a long, straight line out of a car’s body, it ends up looking as if it’s sagging in the middle. You need just that little bit of curvature to balance the shape. I should have known this from my Classics background: Ancient Greek architects used entasis for the same effect. By giving columns of temples like the Parthenon a slight convex curve, they appear straight to the eye.

I’m not a car fanatic. I don’t go to car races or rallies. I don’t read car magazines in my spare time. I am only interested in cars from an engineering and design point of view, and those I like best haven’t really been styled at all, like early Citroën 2CVs, Land Rovers, and the original 1970 Range Rover.

I am, though, particularly fond of the Citroën SM, a grand tourer dating from 1970, which I think is the best internal combustion car ever. It might be half a century old, yet it wins hands down in terms of comfort and originality. I brought mine to show our design engineers at the beginning of our car project, to encourage them to be bold and original.

The team eventually grew to 500, and by mid-2019 we had a very convincing car, with a pair of 264 hp Dyson electric motors, one at the front, one at the rear of the car. Although weighing 2.87 tons, the EV could have accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds. Its top speed was estimated at 125 mph.

It was quite a package. Original, beautifully engineered, understated, and unlike anything else on the road, our electric car was more than the machine itself. It was part of an impulse on our part to develop new technologies that we can put to work in a wide range of future products.

Because we were new kids on the automotive block, suppliers charged us more, which meant the bill for the parts would be as much as 25% higher than those sold to existing manufacturers, making the car expensive to produce. And, as we were planning to sell it direct rather than through dealers, we would need storage facilities and financing deals in every country we sold in. On top of this was the obvious fact that the fewer cars you make, the higher the cost per car. At a relatively low volume, we would have to sell the car at $210,000. There are not many people who will buy a car at this price.

[Photo: Dyson]

Traditional car companies were also suddenly racing to develop an electric car, largely because of “Dieselgate,” the exhaust emissions scandal that came to light in the fall of 2015. It was discovered that Volkswagen had programmed turbocharged direct-injection diesel engines in some 11 million cars to activate emission controls to meet regulations during laboratory tests, but not on the road. Diesels were producing unacceptable levels of nitrogen oxide and particulates by stealth.

“Dieselgate” helped get the automotive industry and car owners away from diesels and toward electric. While you can’t make electric cars for a reasonable price, existing car companies were willing to make them because they help achieve specified exhaust emissions across their product range. So, if they take a loss on electric cars, they make a profit on polluting cars while appearing virtuous. Their cars would undercut the price of our car by a significant margin. By 2019, it was clear that it would be hard for us to compete at our elevated price and risky for us to proceed.

Because of this shifting commercial sand, we made the decision to pull out of production at the last minute. N526 was a brilliant car. Very efficient motors. Very aerodynamic. Wonderful to drive and be driven in. We just couldn’t ever have made money from it, and for all our enthusiasm, we weren’t prepared to risk the rest of Dyson.

When you stop a project, it’s a horrible, horrible thing to have to do. Everyone who had worked on it was thrilled with what they were doing, and we felt we were doing something exciting and significant that had led to huge developments in batteries and motors. We realized that we were disappointing a lot of people—those who worked on it, but also those who wanted to buy it.

Back in 2014, we knew we’d entered a competitive field but believed that competitors were mostly ignoring the demand for electric cars. What we did not predict was “Dieselgate,” or that the landscape would change so dramatically in the interim. Fortunately, we were able to stomach the $700 million cost and survive. We did, though, push ourselves to learn a great deal in areas including batteries, robotics, air treatment, and lighting. We also learned more about virtual engineering as a tool in the design process and how, ultimately, we would be able to make products more quickly and less expensively. These were all valuable lessons for the future.

Invention: A Life by James Dyson [Photo: Dyson]

Copyright © 2021 by James Dyson. From the forthcoming book Invention: A Life by James Dyson to be published by Simon & Schuster. Originally published in Great Britain in 2021 by Simon & Schuster UK. Printed by permission.

Electric Automotive