Future or Fantasy? We Take a First Ride in MDI's Compressed-Air CarBy John O'Dell December 27, 2008
Luxembourg-based Motor Development International (MDI) is raising the hopes of green-car technology fans, and the eyebrows of skeptics, with its promised line of zero-emission cars powered by compressed air.
Green Car Advisor contributor Nick Kurczewski recently paid a visit to MDI's research and development center in the south of France, and climbed aboard the company's AirPOD city-car, the first North American journalist - he was told - to be treated to a ride in one of the low speed city cars.
Here's his report.
The goal of the trip was to to see first-hand if an air-powered car has real market potential, or whether the idea is just a lot of hot air, impractical for everyday use.
Never camera-shy, correspondent Nick Kurczewski poses in rear-facing passenger seat of MDI's AirPOD compressed-air car.
The pressurized tanks store compressed air that runs the engine, which in turn sends power to the driven wheels.
Behind the Wheel
There have been quite a few reports about the air cars, including ours last October, but little in the way of in-the-car impressions. So Green Car Advisor arranged to visit MDI's R&D faciltiy to bring our audience the experience of air-powered motoring - albeit from the passenger seat.
We were given a ride in a prototype of MDI's four-seat AirPOD. Driving was denied us because the vehicle isn't finished - refinements are still being made on an almost daily basis - and MDI decided it wasn't ready for a journalist to get behind the wheel.
Not that there is a wheel to get behind. Controling the car is done with a joystick that's mounted to the right of the single front seat.
Push forward to accelerate. Pull back to stop. Move the stick left or right to turn. It's as simple as that.
The driver enters the car via the huge glass windshield, which hinges upwards for easy access. There are no foot pedals, and in this prototype, no dashboard or instruments, although MDI is working on a simple digital display for things like speed and remaining range.
The MDI AirPOD, seen from the front, with the company's air compressor station to the left.
The AirPOD is a four-wheeler, regular-sized in the rear and two very small wheels mounted up front almost directly beneath the driver's feet.
These tiny shopping-trolley front wheels probably don't do much for the AirPOD's racetrack prowess, but they make for impressive low-speed cornering acrobatics. The 106-inch-long AirPOD can perform a 360-degree turn within its own petite shadow.
Behind the driver is a rear-facing bench seat with room for up to three passengers. As with access to the driver's seat, entry to the passenger cabin is achieved via a wide-opening glass door.
Between and underneath the seats is the heart of the AirPOD, a "mono-energy" air-powered, one-cylinder air engine and its pressurized air tank.
(MDI is also building what it refers to as "dual-energy" models that use a secondary fuel such as gas, diesel, or a biofuel, in an external combustion chamber that then heats the air in the engine. This expands the air, increasing the car's range and top speed.
Low Speed Only
For now, the mono-energy AirPOD is limited to speeds below 70 kilometers per hour (43 mpg), or below 45 kilometers (28 mph) in markets where the car is elgible to be driven without a driver's license.
The AirPOD's current range is quoted at 136 miles in MDI's sales literature.
With the equivalent of only 5.45 horsepower, break-neck performance is not the AirPOD's forte.
In fact, our ride was momentarily curtailed when the AirPOD's engine started chugging slower and the car's speed kept dropping.
MDI says that refueling with a commercial compressed air system should take less than one minute, though our refueling session stretched to about four. Refueling at home, using a traditional plug and outlet to power the on-board air compressor, takes between 3 to 4 hours.
Once our driver topped up the air (left), we clambered inside and onto the rear-facing bench seat.
Visibility is excellent, there is a wide view of the world outside thanks to the large glass hatches and porthole-like side windows. The cabin is airy, funky, and modern. It feels as much like a chic lounge as it does an automobile.
On the move, though, the AirPOD is not so urbane. There was a slight vibration from the engine and a lack of sound insulation that made it a bit noisy inside the cabin as the plastic body panels amplified he the motor's mechanical din.
MDI representatives said the test model we rode in doesn't have sound insulation installed and that production models with insulation should be noticeably quieter (and a bit heavier) than this prototype.
MDI also stressed that the suspension is being fine-tuned, though we found no serious faults with the current arrangement. At the low-speeds of our demo run, the AirPOD coped well with most bumps and imperfections.
The car's cornering abilities are even more impressive from inside, where a couple quick 360 degree turns left us amazed at the maneuverability (and awfully dizzy, as well). Squeezing into tight parking spots or crowded traffic should not pose a problem in the highly maneuverable AirPOD.
Pricing is still being determined, though MDI has suggested a â¬6,000 ($8,300) price-tag for mass-market AirPODs.
The air car is a zero-emission vehicle that MDI hopes will be a viable alternative to the electric-powered cars being being developed by almost every major auto company.
"I'm not an ecologist who made a motor," MDI founder Guy Negre said during an interview at the company's R&D facility in Nice, France. "I'm a car guy who made a clean engine."
"Whenever something new comes along, you always have people with a very favorable opinion and others that are very critical."
MDI's Guy Negre with 'MiniCat' air-car concept.
That's because compressed air, pound for pound, is less energy dense than these other forms of automotive fuel.
MDI representatives readily admitted during our visit that, if driven at highway speeds and mounted in a traditional vehicle, an air-powered engine would have a severely limited range.
"There's no way to make 4x4s that run on air," Negre admitted. "So we're going to make cars that are more adapted to customers actual use."
That translates as low-speed, lightweight city cars.
The first production models are only months away and, Negre said, "should be available in March or April."
Air Cars and Airports
Initial models will be used in company fleets by Air France and other groups and will be closely monitored by MDI, said Negre.
The company in October announced an agreement with both Air France and the Dutch airline KLM to test the company's futuristic-looking "AirPod" model.
The six-month program will see the tiny cars ferrying passengers throughout Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris and Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.
Operating data and troubleshooting form the airline tests will be used to get the cars ready for retial sales late next year or in early 2010, Negre said.
A Sub-$5,000 Model?
He added that MDI's basic model, the OneFlowAir, should go on sale in Europe with a starting price of about â¬3,500 ($4,890).
MDI also is working with India's largest auto manufacturer, Tata Motors, which has an exclusive license to manufacture and market air cars in India.
Tata shot to prominence during the New Delhi Auto Expo 11 months ago when when it debuted its utra-cheap Nano city-car. The starting price of the standard gasoline-powered Nano will be roughly $2,100 when - barring more of the labor and financial troubles that have been plaguing Tata - it goes on sale next spring.
Tata has not released specifics about pricing, sales dates, or plans to use compressed air technology, but is expected to focus its exclusive use of MDI's air-powered motors on the Nano.
Indicating that he's in the market for other partners, Negre said that Tata wouldn't be able to market the air car outside India without negotiating a new contract.
All of this means that, for now, an air-powered automotive future remains tantalizingly out of reach no matter if you live in New Delhi, or New York City.
U.S. sales are being considered, though at the time of our visit Negre would not be drawn into saying which models might appear stateside or what U.S. pricing might be.
"It's not easy breaking into the American market. It's a very particular market and the Americans are a particular people," he said.
"For the moment, no agreement has been reached [regarding U.S. sales]" although, he said, there have been initial talks - with a financial institution he declined to name - about setting up a U.S. distributorship.
Negre ignored the fact that he'd discussed a late 2010 U.S. sales launch in his earlier interview with Green Car Advisor, which led us to conclude that even with all that compressed air on hand, we're not holding our breath.
Nick Kurczewski, contributor