What would you think if someone tried to sell you a car that runs on fresh air?
With road transport accounting for a fifth of global carbon emissions, you could leap at the chance to acquire potentially planet-saving technology. But you know what car salesmen are like? Surely, if such a car existed, you would have heard of it. Likely you would guess he is a conman or a fantasist.
Yet this month at Schipol airport, Amsterdam, Holland, the world’s first cars powered only by compressed air, go on active duty. They are being tested as replacements for the huge fleet of electric service vehicles operated by the airline Air France KLM.
According to Motor Development International, the French company that designed and manufactures the cars, the vehicles produce no carbon emissions at all, they reach speeds of 30mph plus, they travel 65 miles on a one minute recharge and best of all, cost from a little over $4,500.
So why hasn’t the world gone crazy for this elegant solution to a massive carbon-sucking problem? Especially when you can “fill up” anywhere that has a powerful airpump. This could kill the gas station in urban areas. The reason, prosaically is that the inventor promised everyone the car would be launched years ago, but he kept running out of money. The market lost faith. Lets see if the launch in Amsterdam can restore interest around the world.
In terms of performance –speed and energy consumption, air powered cars are similar to electric cars, says inventor Guy Negre, but other factors give air-power a real edge. “Compared to electric cars, air powered cars cost a fraction of the price to buy, batteries don’t have to be replaced every few years and crucially they take only a fraction of the time to recharge.”
But Negre has devoted the last thirteen years to developing compressed air technology at his factory in Carros, eight miles north of Nice, in Southern France and he has his sights trained on a far greater prize than the market for electric buggies. He wants to put a rocket up the two trillion dollar a year global auto industry, radically improving the quality of urban life and making a serious dent in global carbon emissions in the process.
“I see this launch as historically important,” says Negre, a gentle and good humoured man in his mid sixties. “Cars are so bad for the people and the planet. They kill maybe 400,000 people a year through pollution alone. I believe that like cigarettes they will eventually be banned. “He hopes that within a few years his cars will account for maybe one per cent of the 73 million new vehicles sold annually.
The air powered vehicles range from weird three wheeled buggies to a four wheel, five door family saloon. Although the number of models on offer is currently limited for cost reasons, they could also include vans, buses, taxis and boats, says Negre.
Despite the too-good-to-be-true claim that they run on air, he says the technology involved is “democratic” (i.e. not complex or expensive), and could easily be employed in even less developed economies. It is also surprisingly similar to the combustion engine.
The car bodies are made of fibre glass which Negre claims is lighter and ten times stronger than steel. They are propelled by compressed air that is stored at 4500 pounds per square inch in thermoplastic shatter-proof tanks surrounded by a carbon-fibre shell. (The same tanks used to contain the fuel in gas-powered buses.) The air is released through pistons in the engine, which drive the wheels just like a conventional petrol engine.
The version I tested at MDI’s factory, was a crude proto type –all the other cars were in Schipol airport. True it was a bit like driving a souped-up lawn mower –it was surprisingly noisy and was controlled by a joy stick cannibalized from a computer game. But it worked, easily reaching speeds above twenty five miles an hour in the limited space of the factory car park which doubles as a test track.
While I didn’t give it an endurance test, its fuel tank was filled in little over a minute by high pressure air pumps. These can easily be powered by clean electricity –hydro, wind or solar, making the air car completely pollution free. Even if carbon generated electricity is used, carbon emissions are still only ten percent of a petrol engine, says Negre.
He admits that the need for a network of high-powered air pumps is a problem for the air car –it will certainly be a brake on their uptake. So very early adopters will have to make do with the on-board air pump which can fill the tank over night or six hours.
That’s ok for urban driving where journeys are typically a few miles. For longer journeys there’s a hybrid, battery-assisted version, which Negre claims can reach 100 miles per hour, and travel 900 miles on one gallon of petrol. Sounds like a tall claim doesn’t it? But I checked my notes and that’s that exactly what he said
Unlike the combustion engine however which produces heat, air-powered engines bizarrely run very cold and thick ice quickly forms on parts of the engine. This means that the only feature that comes for free in the air car will be air conditioning. In fact the engine is so effective at making ice, that Negre is developing a free-standing version designed to be a water generator.
Independent energy experts are cautiously optimistic. “I’ve looked at this technology and it can work,” says Ulf Bossel a sustainable energy consultant and organizer of the European Fuel Cell Forum. “It looks good over fifty kilometres or so. I see no reason why this shouldn’t be a successful form of urban transport in the near future.”
But it’s not just the product that is green. Negre has developed an innovative production model. He isn’t interested in running a huge factory turning out thousands of cars and he doesn’t want to sell out to some huge industrial conglomerate –although recently he has been approached by several car giants.
Instead, he is selling franchises complete with fully kitted out factories for between £12m and £15m a pop. Each factory will be able to turn out several thousand cars a year at 28 % profit margin claims Negre. This, he says is his real business. “We are doing it this way for two reasons. First to keep the amounts of capital needed to a minimum (and keep out of the clutches of big business). Secondly to make a more environmentally sound manufacturing process.”
Critics of the car point out that Negre has regularly made claims that he was just about to launch ever since he developed his first prototype in 1998. So, you might ask, why should we believe him now?
By way of evidence he points firstly to the KLM deal and secondly to a £30m agreement signed in 2007 to license the technology in Asia to Indian car manufacturer Tata, which is considering putting the air-engine into its ultra cheap Nano. “The reason our launch kept slipping is that we kept running out of money It is Tata’s cash that has allowed the air car to finally come to market after stalling for so long, “ admits Negre.
But if the sums of money bandied about sound huge, think again. In terms of the automobile industry they are peanuts. Negre estimates that so far he has spent P25m on developing his air cars –the equivalent of just three days R&D spend of a firm like Mercedes.
So far he sold 60 franchises around the world in Latin America, the US and continental Europe –although none as yet in the UK. But Negre does let slip that he is close to sealing a deal which could see air cars on sale in the UK within three years. If his air-powered technology fulfills its promise, it looks like the sky’s the limit for Negre. But, quelle surprise, it isn’t. With just a few alterations, he claims a hybrid version of his new engine could even be used to power aircraft. ENDS
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