Alternate Fuel Vehicles a Breath of Fresh Air

Compressed air vehicles set to hit the U.S. market next year

By NorCalCars guest writer Chris Somerville

With worldwide gasoline supplies limited and concerns about reducing greenhouse gasses and protecting the environment becoming hot topics, a number of alternate fuel vehicle options are springing up left and right touting themselves as “The Next Big Thing”.

With hundreds of thousands of hybrids already on the road and enterprising individuals converting diesels to run on recycled french fry oil, clearly there is demand from consumers for vehicles that save fuel and are “gentle” on the environment.

One option that definitely fits the bill is a compressed-air vehicle currently being produced in France by a company called MDI. Based on a concept by F1 race car engineer and company CEO Guy Negre, MDI vehicles (called Air Cars) used compressed air to power the engine’s six pistons, getting a reported 106 miles per gallon.

But with everything that sounds too good to be true, the Air Car does come with some caveats. While it does run on only compressed air at low speeds (under 35 mph), the MDI uses gasoline to heat a chamber that gives more pressure to the pistons. But with a top speed of 96 miles an hour and 75 horsepower, the small amount of gasoline used, the Air Car adds a breath of fresh air to the alternate fuel vehicle debate.

Funded by India’s Tata Motors for emerging markets, the Air Car is being licensed for import in the U.S. by New York-based Zero Pollution Motors.

Targeted to hit U.S roads by 2010 with a price tag of under $18,000, the Air Car can be equipped with an on-board compressor to refill its compressed air tank or can be plugged into a standard electrical outlet for four hours to “refuel”.

With a lightweight body made from fiberglass and injected foam mounted to a glued-together aluminum-rod chassis, the Air Car supposedly has been developed to pass all strict U.S. safety standards. “Do you think somebody would actually put millions of dollars into making a car that will not pass safety regulations?” vice president of MDI and CEO of Zero Pollution Motors Shiva Vencat told CNN earlier this year. “There's no point in doing that.”

Will It Live Up to the Hype?

While experts concede that the Air Car concept works, there are doubts about it hitting the claimed 106 mpg.

”No one's really proven a six-seater passenger car [can get] any better than 75 miles to the gallon,” John Callister, director of the Harvey Kinzelberg Entrepreneurship in Engineering program at Cornell University's College of Engineering told CNN. “This would represent a big step forward.”

Other experts express concern over the amount of energy needed to compress the air to the required 4,500 psi to run the vehicle.

But even if the Air Car gets 80-100 miles per gallon, it’s still a significant improvement over anything currently on the market. And MDI isn’t stopping with designing cars for personal use. They are working on air-powered public transportation vehicle similar to a “train on wheels”.

And while it may take a few years for Americans to get used to the small, futuristic-looking Air Cars, the benefits to the environment can help us all breathe easier.

Chris Somerville is a freelance automotive writer based in the Pacific Northwest. Visit his Web site, Somerville Custom Publishing, for more information.