Pulling the plug on the future

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(October 13, 2019) Whenever someone gets wistful about the past, or wants to show that the present hasn’t lived up to the future we were promised, they ask a question along the lines of: “Where are the flying cars we were promised?” After all, futurists past wowed us with cities on the moon, colonies on Mars, driverless vehicles and other science fiction staples as examples of the world in which we would live by the turn of the 21st Century. Yet none of these things have happened.

Driverless and flying cars are “just around the corner” (again), but still far enough away to call into question whether they are real or vaporware. Look no further than reports that Tesla’s Autopilot is everything but what its name promises, that certain Nissans* fitted with the full suite of safety tech are causing accidents by engaging emergency braking in normal traffic on bridges, etc., and you see there’s still a long way to go.

Further proof that the future will look more like the present than some comic book future is the announcement this week that Dyson has pulled the plug on its electric vehicle production program.

Yes, it sucks that the world-famous vacuum cleaner maker has pulled the plug on its automotive division, but the effort has run out of charge. With more negatives than positives, there was just no way to over come the reluctance, no matter how amped-up company CEO James Dyson was about the project.

Oaky, I’m done with the puns…

The Dyson Autocar

We’ll probably never see the car the Dyson team designed, built, and planned to produce in Singapore 18 months from now. Any more than we are likely to get a glimpse at the car Apple built and planned to produce in volume. Both are “what ifs” best left to the imagination, where — in the minds of true believers — they can stand head and shoulders above the more prosaic EVs that have, or will soon, reach production. It will always be a case of “My brother can beat your brother,”  though we never will get to meet said brother, or even determine if they ever existed.

So what went wrong? Lots of things, really. Despite what many in the computer and technology industries think, building a car isn’t that simple. One major reason is that a passenger vehicle is the single most regulated product on the planet, and lots of the regulations governing their design and manufacture don’t make a heck of a lot of sense. Another is that putting all the necessary pieces together profitably with high quality and at a price the public can afford takes lots of scale and effort.

If you want to do something on your own that doesn’t pull from the existing parts bin, you’re going to have to pay a lot to make it happen. It’s not a big problem if you’re at the outer edge of the price envelope with an image car, but it is a major concern if you plan to sell your wares at reasonable volumes and at a reasonable price.

The flip side of the coin is that the major automakers are descending upon the EV segment with the full force of their ability to scale new technology across a wide field of vehicles to bring costs in line. Theory says they should be able to move farther faster, and at a lower price than any new entrants. Unless you want to be the latest Preston Tucker, you had better enter the game with a full war chest and the patience of a saint, otherwise you might find yourself in the same boat as Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. Few remember that they were the brains behind Tesla, and the ones who put the Lotus Elise-based Tesla Roadster into production for the low, low price of $109,000 per copy.

Faced with bankruptcy, they approached Apple Computer with a plan whereby the Cupertino, California-based computer company would buy the company and all of its intellectual properties. However, Apple was in the midst of determining how an EV maker would fit into the broader company and beginning its due diligence when PayPal co-founder, company chairman, and early Tesla investor Elon Musk swooped in to take possession. He’s been trying to turn a consistent profit ever since

None of this should have scared off Dyson — or Apple — for that matter. Both walk on the outer edge of the price envelope with their current products, each of which has myriad competitors that are available at lower prices. Much of the technology they use was not created in-house, but has been bought-in and adapted for their specific needs. Tweaking and adapting components, altering capabilities to create new characteristics, and altering the form factor and design to suit is what these companies do best. What they could not be in the auto industry were leaders, but even that is less of a problem than you might think. They didn’t lead in their respective industries, for the most part. What they did was make new technology painless. You didn’t need instructions to know how to make their products work. It was all plug-and-play.

Or it was. Anyone who has undergone the painful upgrade to the latest Mac OS — 10.15, “Catalina” — knows what I mean. It used to be that you downloaded an update, and everything flowed smoothly from there. There were no crashes, no delays, and no need to have an advanced degree in computer science to get the software up and running. Nor did the user require training on how to use the new software; it was easy to navigate around and discover what it could do. Not any more.

Catalina is buggy, balky, and exasperating. (My system required three attempts before the software would download, another three hard reboots before it would begin to install, and a further two before the system was up and running again. It took nearly 24 hours to do what, in the past, had taken less than two hours.) This is not what you want in the software designed to control every function in a vehicle.

Nor do you want a battery that is as flawed as lithium-ion. Despite its inventors recently winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, the battery isn’t perfect. It requires 500,000 gallons of water to produce one ton of lithium. Despite the industry’s efforts, the cobalt used in the anode and cathode is mined by children in the ironically name Democratic Republic of the Congo. It takes upwards of 3,000 gallons to put out an EV fire, and the risk of fire doesn’t end until the battery is completely discharged; one reason old iPads and Teslas spontaneously combust in battery recycling centers and police impound lots. Also, the batteries require 30-45 days of conditioning — being charged and discharged continuously in order to reliably access the capacity of the battery over its lifetime — before they are ready for use. And so on.

Dyson was certain its solid-state battery technology would take care of at least some of the more unnerving problems with lithium-ion batteries**, but it’s probable that the reality didn’t meet the promise. No one has shown a high-volume, production-ready battery that does not rely on a gel core, despite VW and Toyota staking their EV programs on their creation.

And if these titans haven’t done it yet, what made Dyson’s relatively modest (in comparison) investment think it could? Especially when established gel-pack lithium-ion battery producers are selling their wares below cost to get the business in hope of growing the EV market to a sustainable level. By pushing the technology and keeping the prices low, they can effectively prevent new players from entering the game.

Thus, solid-state battery packs will have to show significant real world gains to break through that barrier. It’s something to remember the next time someone wonders why the future hasn’t lived up to our expectations and dreams.

* Not to single-out Nissan. Systems from other automakers have their own faults, but haven’t yet drawn the attention accorded to Nissan.

** Last year’s polar cold nearly put an friend’s Tesla Model S out of commission. Despite a full charge and conditioning the interior prior to departure, the sub-zero temps and stout winds caused his range to drop precipitously as the gel battery packs began to thicken, and the energy required to keep the interior warm increased. He made it to his appointment with less than 25 miles showing on the range readout, and left his car plugged in at his office in Detroit until the weather warmed over the weekend. Furious at a car he had truly loved up until that moment, he sold it the following Spring for a car with an internal combustion engine.