On Tuesday, the designer James Dyson said his company would spend nearly $3 billion to introduce an all-electric car by 2020. The British billionaire is well known for revolutionizing the vacuum cleaner, not to mention hand dryers in restrooms.
By jumping into electric cars, Dyson has forged a de facto alliance with Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Neither billionaire is motivated primarily by selling more cars — rather, they see the automobile as a large-scale design problem embedded in far larger problems: pollution and climate change.
In an email to employees of the Dyson company and shared with Business Insider, the entrepreneur, who was knighted in 2007, said his interest in developing a radically different electric car dated back to the late 1980s and grew out of frustration with attempts to address another challenge.
“In 1988 I read a paper by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, linking the exhaust from diesel engines to premature death in laboratory mice and rats,” Dyson wrote. “In March 1990 a team at Dyson began work on a cyclonic filter that could be fitted on a vehicle’s exhaust system to trap particulates.”
Nobody wanted the technology
Dyson said that by 1993, prototypes were ready — but no one was interested in the technology. This stunned Dyson, and he expressed disbelief that automakers and governments would promote so-called clean diesel while companies such as Volkswagen cheated on emissions testing.
“Throughout, it has remained my ambition to find a solution to the global problem of air pollution,” he wrote. “Some years ago, observing that automotive firms were not changing their spots, I committed the company to develop new battery technologies.”
He added: “At this moment, we finally have the opportunity to bring all our technologies together into a single product. Rather than filtering emissions at the exhaust pipe, today we have the ability to solve it at the source. So I wanted you to hear it directly from me: Dyson has begun work on a battery electric vehicle, due to be launched by 2020.”
The Dyson-Musk alliance
Dyson’s motivation is similar to Musk’s with Tesla. Both men recognize that in modern capitalist economies, where consumer spending makes up 70% of a country’s gross domestic product, the best way to effect major change is to propose major changes in what people buy.
Automobiles are a multitrillion-dollar business, but 99% of the market runs on gas, and the emissions are one of the largest contributors to climate change. If Tesla or Dyson can alter that situation with electric cars powered largely by renewable energy, consumers could help curtail climate change.
But those consumers need compelling products. With Tesla, Musk has given the world a sexy electric car and been rewarded with a market cap of $60 billion and with 500,000 preorders for the Model 3 sedan.
If Dyson can offer something similar — or better — the world will have moved down the road to an exciting electric-vehicle ecosystem supported not by government mandates for automakers to comply with emissions and fuel-economy regulations, but by a save-the-Earth mission that consumers can get behind.
This post originally appeared on Business Insider.