Is the Air-Powered Car About to Become a Reality?

tataaircar.jpgFrance’s Guy Negre has been waxing poetic about an air-powered car for years, but many have dismissed the idea as — dare we say it? — so much hot air. But yesterday Negre’s small design firm, MDI, announced a partnership with India’s Tata Motors to put an air-powered car into production within a year. According to the BBC, the car, a five-seater dubbed the OneCAT, would cost around 2,500 pounds (around $5,000) and weigh half as much as a Fiat Panda, according to The Register.

The vehicle will store the air in carbon-fiber tanks and will be able to fill up from an air compressor in as little as three minutes (or using regular electricity and an on-board compressor in four hours). According to the designers, the car will get about 120mpg on longer journeys, and even better in towns.

But before we proclaim that the alternative fuel answer has been blowin’ in the wind, a closer look at the OneCAT’s technology is in order. The car does claim zero emissions while “in town,” but in order for the car to be truly useful (especially in the U.S.), it needs a significant range.

Negre claims he has boosted the car’s range up to 100 km, but in order to do this a burner has been added to heat up the air between the tanks and the engine to provide a power boost. The burner runs on — you guessed it — liquid fuel, which is yet another example of the disappointing trend of alternative fuel vehicles shifting the burden on carbon emissions to other sources outside of the car.

Still, Negre’s vision for shaking up the automotive industry extends beyond the technology to the entire manufacturing and distribution process. Tata is thus far the only firm licensed the sell the car, and they are limited to India. Negre hopes to attract investors elsewhere who will set up their own factories and make the cars from 80 percent locally sourced materials, resulting in a major reduction in emissions caused by transporting parts.

In a move that will undoubtedly be unpopular with dealers, Negre also wants factories to sell the product directly, cutting out the middleman. All eyes will be on Tata to see if this hot air goes anywhere anytime soon.

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