Regulatory concerns about minimum energy performance standards for vacuum cleaners

Ever since the news about how VW flaunted the regulatory process on emissions testing, James Dyson, inventor of his famous bag-less vacuum cleaner, has been raising concerns about vacuum cleaner tests. Michael Pooler writes in the Financial Times about latest developments.

 

Inventor James Dyson faces challenge to clean up EU vacuum tests

It took Sir James Dyson 5,127 prototypes over five years to perfect the bagless vacuum cleaner that made his name and fortune.

That resolve is being put to the test again.

The British inventor is attempting to tear up European Union regulations for labelling the energy efficiency of vacuum cleaners, which he claims create loopholes exploited by rival manufacturers.

His eponymous UK company has launched legal action against Siemens and Bosch for allegedly misleading customers about the power usage and performance of their machines. Sir James likened their behaviour to the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal.

The claims have triggered a bitter legal tussle as BSH Hausgeräte, which manages the German domestic appliance brands, denied the allegations and said it would countersue for defamation.

Dyson is no stranger to litigation, having used the law and courts extensively to defend its intellectual property in the past. But early setbacks this time have cast doubts on whether this is a battle it can win.

As older patents have expired, competitors have emulated aspects of Dyson’s design aesthetics and the innovative suction technology that have long been its hallmarks.

“Dyson has been the front leader for a long time, but the other guys have caught up,” says Charles Gordon, a former industry executive who founded whatvacuum.com. “A massive aspect of the marketplace is that Dyson pioneers and innovates and the others follow.”

The risk is that any dilution of Dyson’s selling points could be compounded by regulations that play to its disadvantage. None of Dyson’s vacuum cleaners are currently among the five highest scoring models on the website of Which?, a consumer comparison service.

Dyson is not lashing out from a position of weakness, however.

Two of its machines feature on a top five list of ‘best buys’ hand-picked by Which?. It remains the leading vacuum cleaner brand in western Europe, where its volume sales have increased in each of the past five years, according to Euromonitor. The consultancy predicts that growth in the US and Japan should offset a sharp drop in Russian sales.

New product ranges such as hand-dryers, bladeless fans and humidifiers have diversified its sales mix in recent years, while cordless vacuums such as the V6 model accounted for more than half of its revenues in 2014. Overall revenues rose 10 per cent to £1.4bn.

Resources are being pumped into the development of battery technology to power its cordless machines, a segment that grew by two-thirds in the UK market last year.

“Perhaps most importantly, Dyson has invested in the fastest growing category — robotic vacuum cleaners,” says Filipe Oliveira of Euromonitor.

Next year should see the launch of its delayed 360 Eye model, although experts say it is entering the robotic cleaner arena relatively late.

Even so, the issue of energy labelling is clearly weighing on the company.

Max Conze, chief executive of Dyson, says it could “ultimately” affect sales if unchanged — although he believes the company’s arguments will prevail.

“Our starting point is a simple one: what we want is a fair, competitive battle of ideas, products and invention. Where we take objection is when there is misleading communication,” he says.

At the heart of Dyson’s grievance is the laboratory testing of vacuums, which the company says does not reflect real-life conditions because the machines are not loaded with dust beforehand.

As bags and filters clog up over time, which Dyson says leads to a loss of suction and drop in cleaning performance, it claims the regime discriminates against bagless ‘cyclonic’ technology such as its own, which separates dirt from air.

It also says the environmental and financial cost of replacing bags is not factored in.

An EU court rejected Dyson’s legal challenge in November. The company could yet appeal the ruling.

John Doherty, of law firm Penningtons Manches, says the company’s approach is novel — and difficult to succeed with.

“Seeking to have an instrument of EU law ruled incompetent or lacking in legal basis is a very ambitious goal and, although not unprecedented, very rare,” he says.

Dyson also alleges that two Siemens and Bosch cleaners game the test by consuming more electricity than advertised when in the home. It claims a sensor detects dust collection and directs the motor to draw power above the legal limit of 1,600 watts despite having a rating of 750W.

A Netherlands court dismissed Dyson’s claim that Bosch had committed consumer fraud last month in an initial hearing. Other cases are outstanding in Germany and Belgium.

Dyson itself was forced to downgrade the rating of one vacuum model last year following a legal case in Germany brought by BSH.

It served as a reminder of the long-running antagonism with Bosch, which Dyson accused in 2012 of industrial espionage.

In a development that could assuage some of Dyson’s regulatory concerns, the European Commission expects test methods using partially filled bags to be ready by 2018, a year after a limit of 900W is imposed on vacuums.

“It is a signal they understand [the current system] is flawed,” says Mr Conze.

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