Dyson working on new generation of fast, green cars
The design guru has seen the future of transport, he tells Martin Hickman: solar-powered electric vehicles
Britain's most famous inventor, Sir James Dyson, is working on a project that could lead to the creation of a fast, green car.
Engineers at his research laboratory in Wiltshire are developing a powerful lightweight motor that could enable electric cars to zoom along for hundreds of miles without causing pollution. Solar panels on their roofs or in garages would charge them with renewable energy.
In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, the scientist forecast that electric cars would be "the future" of transport, and predicted they could outnumber petrol vehicles in as little as 10 years' time.
"They're quiet and they're pollution free," enthused Sir James, whose bagless vacuum cleaner cemented his reputation as an innovative risk-taker and earned him an estimated £700m fortune.
The 61-year-old inventor also expressed his belief that the cars could overcome their current drawbacks – their short range and slow speed. "An electric car doesn't go far enough. It could do. Electric motors can do that," he said, adding that there were "fantastic opportunities" to make electric vehicles lighter.
"At the moment, electric cars are seen as city cars and to go 30mph is quite enough, but in the future that will change. An electric motor can go to very high speeds."
At present, electric cars are powered by a motor charged from a normal socket connected to the national grid. "Most of the time a car isn't being used," said Sir James, "so a photo voltaic [solar] charge over a long period of time is an absolutely suitable way of charging a car."
Although probably several years off, the prospect of a Dyson car was welcomed by green groups, who believe climate change and diminishing oil resources will force drivers to wean themselves off fossil fuel in the near future.
Petrol has jumped in price by 22 per cent to £1.18 a litre in a year, pushing the cost of filling a saloon car to £70. By contrast, Britain's best-selling electric car, the G-Wiz, costs only 1p a mile to run – and is exempt from road tax, many parking fees and the London congestion charge.
Carmakers are pouring millions of pounds into developing electric and hybrid cars, believing a long-term shift towards sustainable transport is taking place. Sales of gas-guzzling 4x4s and luxury marques fell in the UK in May.
Last week, General Motors announced plans to sell the "plug in and go" Chevy Volt by 2010. BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen and Honda plan rivals.
As one of Britain's best-known businessmen, Sir James employs a research team of 400 at a modern glass HQ in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, and manufactures his products in Malaysia.
Sir James said he was "excited" by his firm's extra-strong digital motors, which are half the weight of normal motors. With the aid of a microchip, his patented Dyson Digital Motor (DDM) turns 10,000 times a minute – five times faster than that of a Formula One car. He has put the motor into two vacuum cleaners and in the Airblade, the speedy hand-drier he launched two years ago. He believes the DDM – and its successors – could have far greater applications, notably in the electric car.
Sources said Sir James would probably want to team up with existing carmakers to develop a new electric vehicle rather than try to make one from scratch.
The environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth welcomed the involvement of Sir James, who has injected colour, fun and style into industrial design.
"Electric cars that run on electricity generated by renewable energy produce zero carbon emissions," said transport campaigner Richard Dyer. "These cars will be crucial to reducing transport's impact on climate change and should be introduced widely as soon as possible."
Steve Fowler, editor of What Car, was more cautious. "Dyson certainly has a history of producing innovative electrical products," he said, "but there's a fair difference between producing electric motors for vacuum cleaners or washing machines and cars."
Mr Fowler added that Sir James would have more success if the finished product bore the stamp of his "trademark innovation and design": "The last time a home electricals manufacturer got involved with vehicle manufacture was when Hoover manufactured the Sinclair C5 electric tricycle in 1985."
Plug it in and fill it up: the joys of a G-Wiz
The school run, weekly shop, daily commute, late-night taxi alternative... owning a car in the city is an expensive business – to say nothing of the added cost to the environment.
Look around central London these days and you'll see a tiny little roller skate of a car parked on almost every street. The G-Wiz, with its green and economic credentials, is here to stay.
My G-Wiz can accommodate me, my husband and two children. With the back seat folded down, it's possible to fit in a week's groceries. It is immune to the £8 daily congestion charge, and costs mere pennies to "fill up".
In these taxing times, being able to cruise past the petrol stations is fantastic. The G-Wiz runs on electricity: just plug one end of a cable into any old domestic three-pin socket, and the other into the car where a petrol cap would usually be. Voilà!
It's a curious experience, driving an electric car. For one thing, it's silent, so watch out for careless jaywalkers. It's a tiny machine, able to squeeze through gaps in traffic. And instead of gears, there's F for forward, R for reverse and B for boost, if you're at the lights with someone nudging your rear bumper.
But there are limitations. It takes eight hours to fully charge the battery, which then lasts for 40 miles – jaunts out of the capital are out the question. The rear seats only sensibly fits small children – adults would struggle to get in.
And, for speed freaks out there, I was happy to reach 45mph on an open stretch of road, but that's about it. For buzzing about the urban sprawl with a clean conscience and a full wallet, the G-Wiz is hard to beat.