Air Cars: A New Wind for America's Roads?
by Jim Ostroff
Thursday, October 30, 2008
A new carmaker has a plan for cheap, environmentally friendly cars to be built all over the country
An air-powered car? It may be available sooner than you think at a price tag that will hardly be a budget buster. The vehicle may not run like a speed racer on back road highways, but developer Zero Pollution Motors is betting consumers will be willing to fork over $20,000 for a vehicle that can motor around all day on nothing but air and a splash of salad oil, alcohol or possibly a pint of gasoline.
The expertise needed to build a compressed air car, or CAV, is not rocket science, either. Years-old, off-the-shelf technology uses compressed air to drive old-fashioned car engine pistons instead of combusting gas or diesel fuel to create a burst of air to do the same thing. Indian carmaker Tata has no qualms about the technology. It has already bought the rights to make the car for the huge Indian market.
The air car can tool along at a top speed of 35 mph for some 60 miles or so on a tank of compressed air, a sufficient distance for 80% of consumers to commute to work and back and complete daily chores.
On highways, the CAV can cruise at interstate speeds for nearly 800 miles with a small motor that compresses outside air to keep the tank filled. The motor isn't finicky about fuel. It will burn gasoline or diesel as well as biodiesel, ethanol or vegetable oil.
This car leaves the highest-mpg vehicles you can buy right now in the dust. Even if it used only regular gasoline, the air car would average 106 mpg, more than double today's fuel sipping champ, the Toyota Prius. The air tank also can be refilled when it's not in use by being plugged into a wall socket and recharged with electricity as the motor compresses air.
Automakers aren't quite ready yet to gear up huge assembly line operations churning out air cars or set up glitzy dealer showrooms where you can ooh and aah over the color or style. But the vehicles will be built in factories that will make up to 8,000 vehicles a year, likely starting in 2011, and be sold directly to consumers.
There will be plants in nearly every state, based on the number of drivers in the state. California will have as many as 17 air car manufacturing plants, and there'll be around 12 in Florida, eight in New York, four in Georgia, while two in Connecticut will serve that state and Rhode Island.
The technology goes back decades, but is coming together courtesy of two converging forces. First, new laws are likely to be enacted in a few years that will limit carbon dioxide emissions and force automakers to develop ultra-high mileage cars and those that emit minuscule amounts of or no gases linked with global warming. Plug-in electric hybrids will slash these emissions, but they'll be pricey at around $40,000 each and require some changes in infrastructure -- such as widespread recharge stations -- to be practical. Fuel cells that burn hydrogen to produce only water vapor still face daunting technical challenges.
Second, the relatively high cost of gas has expedited the air car's development. Yes, pump prices have plunged since July from record levels, but remain way higher than just a few years ago and continue to take a bite out of disposable income. Refiners will face carbon emission restraints, too, and steeply higher costs will be passed along at the pump.
Zero Pollution Motors doesn't plan to produce the cars in the U.S. Instead, it plans to charge $15 million for the rights to the technology, a fully built turnkey auto assembly plant, tools, machinery, training and rights to use trademarks.
The CAV has a big hurdle: proving it can pass federal crash tests. Shiva Vencat, president and CEO of Zero Pollution Motors, says he's not worried. "The requirements can be modeled [on a computer] before anything is built and adjusted to ensure that the cars will pass" the crash tests. Vencat also is a vice president of MDI Inc., a French company that developed the air car.
The inventor of this technology is Mr. Guy Negre, who is the founder and CEO of MDI SA, a company headquartered in Luxembourg with its R and D in Nice, France.