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Monday, July 21, 2008

Don’t Fight the Future

posted by on July 21 at 15:27 PM

There’s been a lot of future talk on Slog today, and so I thought that we needed a flying car post. Turns out, there’s no flying car on the horizon, but there is a car that runs on air:

India’s largest automaker Tata Motors is set to start producing the world’s first commercial air-powered vehicle. The Air Car, developed by ex-Formula One engineer Guy Nègre for Luxembourg-based MDI, uses compressed air, as opposed to the gas-and-oxygen explosions of internal-combustion models, to push its engine’s pistons. Some 6000 zero-emissions Air Cars are scheduled to hit Indian streets in August of 2008.

The Air Car, called the MiniCAT could cost around Rs. 3,50,000 ($ 8177) in India and would have a range of around 300 km between refuels.

The cost of a refill would be about Rs. 85 ($ 2). Tata motors also plans to launch the world’s cheapest car, Tata Nano priced famously at One lakh rupees by October.

It’s no flying car, but it does make a MINI Cooper look like a gas-guzzling SUV, and that’s futuristic enough for me.


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I saw this on Planet Mechanics the other day when they made a motorbike powered in the same manner. 0 emissions. Pretty cool, but I think they said the cars do make a lot of noise.

Posted by Fortuna Mandolin | July 21, 2008 3:46 PM

Electricity is probably a bit cheaper in India, so that 2 bucks is probably more like 5 or 6 over here (not to mention it likely comes from coal). 300km equals about 180 miles. That's taking both their numbers at face value. Plus that thing is tiny and light so even if it had a gas hybrid engine it would get super good gas mileage. The insight got 70mpg and it appears bigger and came out 8 years ago. Taking that number and 4 dollar gas the insight costs 10 bucks for 180 miles and this thing costs 5 or 6. That's being generous.

So really I don't think we are talking all that much savings. Why not just go electric and save the trouble of compressing and storing all that air?

Posted by Giffy | July 21, 2008 3:51 PM

Huh. That's basically a steam engine, only with no boiler. Interesting.

Posted by Fnarf | July 21, 2008 3:52 PM

Well, Giffy, around half as much as an Insight is actually pretty darn good, I'd say. Incremental improvements are very important.

Are the compressed air tanks dangerous? I would think so. Maybe not when they're new, but after they've been jouncing around for a while, being refilled, and so on.

Posted by Fnarf | July 21, 2008 3:57 PM

@4, I am not sure how much of an improvement it really is when you factor in the weight and the fact it can only go 65 miles an hour. Its a neat idea, and I'm sure has it uses in limited settings, but as a viable means of transportation for a large number of people, it just doesn't seem to cut it.

It takes a certain amount of energy to move a vehicle a certain distance. That energy has to come from somewhere. The less forms you make that energy take the more efficient. That's why I think electric, possibly with a back up gas engine, is the way to go.

Posted by Giffy | July 21, 2008 4:03 PM

Steampunk rules!

And, FWIW, it takes about 1/10th the energy to move the same amount of goods by water or rail that it does to move it by an internal combustion engine on a roadway.

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 21, 2008 4:11 PM


You are a negatron, and not an engineer. Please post with that in mind.

Posted by John | July 21, 2008 4:15 PM

But Giffy, the reduced weight is intrinsic, isn't it? It's all about the batteries in the Insight; they weigh a ton. If you don't have batteries, you don't have to move batteries. That's a real gain.

I'm not suggesting that it's the Final Solution. But it's interesting, and bears looking into more.

Posted by Fnarf | July 21, 2008 4:15 PM


And on third world streets. Eep.

Posted by keshmeshi | July 21, 2008 4:19 PM

@8, the batteries are part of it, but at least looking at the two the aircar seems much more stripped down. Also compressed air is not the lightest thing in the world (especially if you want to store it safely).

I agree its interesting though. I want to see some real world drive tests.

Posted by Giffy | July 21, 2008 4:20 PM

#3 - that's what I was thinking. Hopefully, they don't pose the same risk... there's a good reason we don't use those anymore.

Posted by Dougsf | July 21, 2008 4:35 PM

I can't be the only one peurile enough to giggle at Tata Motors moniker.


==(.)(.) Vroom.

Posted by Oi | July 21, 2008 4:37 PM

The temperature of the clean air expelled by the exhaust pipe is between 0-15 degrees below zero, which makes it suitable for use by the internal air conditioning system with no need for gases or loss of power.

Weird. I wonder how many stages this engine has? Because cold, non-poisonous exhaust is useful for all sorts of things inside a car. I wonder, though, how something like this would do in very cold temperatures.

Posted by Greg | July 21, 2008 5:19 PM

comment 2: twice the distance per dollar of one of the most efficient cars of all time is a BIG savings. Also, the "trouble" of compressing and storing air is a lot easier than storing electricity in a battery. Making electricity is one thing, storing it is another. That's why California has surplus energy at night in the summer, and "rolling blackouts" during the day sometimes. In total, they've got more than enough, but it's not feasible to store it when there's extra. You just use what's on the grid while it's there. It's extremely inefficient to store electricity compared to storing compressed air. An air tank also weighs less than current battery technology and costs a LOT less to make, making an efficient car within reach of most drivers. Also, battery disposal is a big issue with hybrids and electric cars. They're toxic contraptions! Plus there's a huge benefit from being able to power your car with wind/hydro/nuke etc... and not OIL, which is a dwindling, predominantly foreign resource.

#5 how often do most people need to drive over 65? Especially those living in cities? The idea that most people aren't getting is that we're going to have to give up some of the conveniences we've come to expect from cars in the next decade. We've been spoiled by cheap horsepower, torque, and speed. These new technologies aren't trying to meet old expectations, they're trying to keep us on the road when we run out of cheap oil.

#6 the more people that come to terms with that, the better. Rebuilding rail bigger and better, especially electrified rail, in this country needs to be a top priority.

Posted by jeff | July 21, 2008 7:01 PM

Ughhh. This is SUCH bullshit.

John@7, Giffy has it just right. And I AM an engineer.

The gas compression is just an energy storage device. Why the fuck turn electricity into compressed gas into mechanical torque, when you can cut out the middle man by going straight from electricity to torque in the form of an electric motor?!?

Especially since the compressed gas is INCREDIBLY dangerous. Batteries can't release all their energy in a tenth of a second; pressurized tanks can.

Posted by Big Sven | July 21, 2008 10:57 PM

@15 It wouldn't be hard to store compressed gas safely. If they're currently storing compressed liquefied hydrogen safely in cars you can certainly do the same with pressurized air.

You don't want to convert energy too much because it wastes energy. Agreed. But, what if you put a solar panel on top and had an air compressor built into the car? Now I'm not saying this will give you unlimited free driving but with how most people drive (drive a few miles to work, sit car in parking lot for 8 hours, drive a few miles home) this would solve most of your energy conversion worries.

Posted by Colin | July 22, 2008 10:44 AM

@15: Batteries can in fact release all their stored energy in a tenth of a second; if you want to see this (and like getting splashed with hot battery acid) just connect two car batteries in series (positive to negative each side). Boom.

Posted by Greg | July 22, 2008 11:06 AM

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