James Dyson’s Electric Shock

JAMES DYSON, the billionaire British inventor and entrepreneur, is standing on a small stage at the mid-September gala opening of his new flagship retail store in Paris. The space is more high-end art gallery than appliance mart: matte black walls and ceiling, gray tile floors, and stylish gadgets displayed like sculptures, spotlighted on white-topped plinths.

Dyson, spry and lanky at 72 years old, is wearing owlish blue-frame glasses and a copper-toned, thigh-length jacket evocative of a mad scientist’s lab coat. In his cut-glass English accent he’s running through his company’s latest wares: a hair dryer that uses circular airflow to avoid heat damage; a hair styler that wraps curls using a vortex of air; a bladeless oval air purifier that blows hot and cold; a combination water faucet and hand dryer. The list goes on, ending, inevitably, with a cordless vacuum cleaner, the category consumers most closely associate with Dyson’s name.

For all the eye-catching design and technological wonder of Dyson’s body of work, many in the audience are hoping he’ll make a pronouncement about the one much-discussed Dyson product that’s not yet for sale. Then the great man utters the words they’ve longed to hear: “the car.” He flicks to an aerial photograph, not of an automobile, but of the former Royal Air Force base in rural England where his team has been working in great secrecy to design an electric vehicle. “That’s about all I’ll say about the car this evening,” he declares. True to his word, he pivots to rhapsodizing about an LED lamp designed by his 47-year-old son and heir apparent, Jake.

Within weeks, the reason behind Dyson’s reticence becomes clear: He had already decided the car project was doomed. In fact, while he was exuberantly peddling vacuums and hair stylers, his bankers were unsuccessfully scrambling to find a buyer for the electric vehicle program to which Dyson had committed four years, hundreds of engineers, and 2 billion pounds ($2.5 billion). On Oct. 10, Dyson said his privately held company would cease work on the project, ending his electric car dreams before the first model ever rolled off the assembly line.

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