In 2008, when the Indian company Tata Motors announced plans to commercialize a vehicle that would be fueled by air, many optimists believed that a revolution was underway in the transport sector. However, more than ten years later, this promising and carbon-free technology has yet to reach production and now seems to be dead in the water. So what happened, and is there still any hope to turn this technological dream into a reality?
The origins of the compressed-air car date back to 1996, when a French engineer named Guy Negre first proposed this idea. His firm Motor Development International (MDI) designed and manufactured a prototype of a car entirely fueled by air. The vehicle had the appearance of a futuristic golf cart, and its motor was meant to be fueled by air stored in tanks under pressure and then released, producing energy (a similar principle was applied by Robert Whitehead to self-propelled naval torpedoes in 1866).
Mostly adapted for an urban environment, the speed of this vehicle - initially baptized “One CATs” - could reach up to 50km/h and had a range of 200km, and its price was set to 3500 euros. Among its main advantages were the near-zero fuel cost (as 100km could be traveled for only 1,5 euros), low emissions, and a fast-charging process.
Despite all his efforts, Negre’s initiative was welcomed with skepticism by both investors and regulators - the French Agency for the Environment claiming that he did not have sufficient safety assessments on his vehicles. Detractors also pointed to a similar project planned in Mexico in 2000, which aimed to deploy taxis fueled by air, but which never got off the ground. Other critics questioned the truly “clean” character of the vehicle, since electricity was still needed to compress the air, and might be coming from fossil fuel sources.
But eventually, MDI succeeded in reaching international markets. After 31 months of negotiation, a collaboration contract between MDI and the Indian automobile leader Tata Motors was signed in 2007, bringing credibility to the project after a decade-long struggle. Tata Mini CAT - the name given to Negre’s prototype - moved to stage two in 2012, after which no updates were made on the project, and the commercialization was postponed to an undefined date.
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Guy Negre passed away in 2016 and Tata Motors did not continue with his revolutionary idea. Possibly because air-propulsion entails conversion losses and requires low speeds and short distances, which do not entirely match customers’ expectations today.
His work certainly inspired other actors of the car industry to explore this technology. For example, the French car manufacturer Peugeot also attempted to bring the concept to life with its 2013 “Hybrid Air” model - based on a combination of gasoline a compressed-air reservoir. However, Peugeot’s managers denounced a lack of support from the French government, which allocated subsidies primarily to electric and hybrid cars, “without letting enough freedom of choice to the industry”. French waste management giant Veolia also decided to join the compressed-air race: in 2014, it signed a partnership with MDI for the supply of waste-collecting vehicles powered by air.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the US company Zero Pollution Motors was also seduced by the innovation and bought a license for selling AirPod cars in the United States. On their website, it is even possible to reserve a car in advance, although it is specified that “the production in Europe is scheduled for 2019”, without offering any further updates.
MDI has not yet given up on the idea. Taken over by Negre’s son, the firm earned recognition from the UN, which recognized it as a leader of the technology in 2016. In 2019, MDI announced a modernized model called AirPod 2.0, allowing a hybrid way of refueling and a speed reaching up to 80 km/h.
MDI still hopes to create interest among French investors and is pursuing dialog with political representatives. In fact, the country aims at stopping diesel-fueled motors sales by 2040 and has already implemented a system of bonuses for low emissions cars. These two policies are an opportunity MDI is determined to take advantage of.
By Tatiana Serova for Oilprice.com
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