Pricy Oil Could Be a Boon for 'Air Car'

Slightly pricier hybrid versions achieve higher speeds and longer ranges by running on a combination of compressed air and conventional gasoline, or bio-fuels derived from organic matter...

Published: 30-Sep-2004

N class=mainarttxt>Record high oil prices might seem like bad news for pretty much anyone in the auto industry, but one European car maker is hoping 50-dollar crude wasn't just a one-time spike.

Luxembourg-based Moteur Developpement International is gearing up for the launch of its Air Car line: cars that run on compressed air.

"It's safe, doesn't pollute, doesn't explode, it's not poisonous and it's not expensive," said MDI representative Sebastien Braud on Wednesday.

The company says the cars will initially go on sale in France, where the first assembly line is due to start production in the middle of next year.

The MiniCATS three-seater compact, a commercial version of a prototype showcased at the 2002 Paris Motor Show, will be priced at euro8,000 (US$9,850). The CitiCATS six-seater sedan will retail for euro13,000 (US$16,000).

In both cars, an electric pump compresses air into the tank at a pressure of 300 bars. The pump plugs straight into an ordinary household socket and takes four hours to complete the recharge.

"When you get home you normally plug in your cell phone," said Braud. "Well, now you do that with your car too."

The already attractive economics of the Air Car - MDI claims a recharge costs just euro2 (US$2.50) at French electricity prices - can only get more persuasive if oil prices stay high.

"It certainly can't hurt," said Braud. "It will help encourage people to switch over."

Light sweet crude traded at around US$49.40 in Asia on Thursday after easing back from Tuesday's record high of US$50.47.

The Air Car's pistons, pumped by the escaping compressed air, can take the vehicle up to 110 kilometers per hour (70 miles per hour). It can travel 80 kilometers (50 miles) at top speed on a full tank, or further at lower speeds.

Slightly pricier hybrid versions achieve higher speeds and longer ranges by running on a combination of compressed air and conventional gasoline, or bio-fuels derived from organic matter.

MDI says the air-only models meet the needs of most urban drivers, who average just 17 kilometers (11 miles) a day. And the only exhaust that comes out of the tail pipe is cold air.

But auto analysts play down the Air Car's chances of taking off, unless a major car maker buys the technology and markets it through its own network.

"If you buy a Peugeot or a Renault, you know that there's a dealer close by if you have a problem," said Gaetan Toulemonde of Deutsche Bank Securities. "If your car has only one dealer in France, what are you going to do when it needs repairs?"

Toulemonde said about 10,000 electric cars had been sold in France since major manufacturers introduced them a decade ago. Many now outperform the Air Car in terms of speed and range but nonetheless remain niche products.

Environmentalists are also wary about the Air Car's claimed benefits. Converting energy from electricity to compressed air is inefficient, according to Karsten Krause of the European Federation for Transport and Environment, a green lobby group based in Brussels.

By consuming much more energy from the power plant than it delivers on the road, Krause said, it could even do as much environmental damage as some gasoline cars.

"You may not have any pollution from the car itself," he said, "but you're just transferring the environmental burden to another place."

Krause's organization pushes a much simpler recipe for cutting greenhouse gas and toxic emissions from vehicles. If consumers ditched their SUVs and four-liter guzzlers and chose engine capacities reflecting their real needs, he said, fuel consumption would drop by a third.

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