The Tata/MDI OneCAT

The Tata/MDI OneCAT

In desperate need for energy, society glugs billions of liters of petroleum and blasts thousands of mountains for their precious coal reservoirs. It has a penchant for ignoring innovative ideas that run against its overbearing petro-based structure. But undeterred by ignorance and oppression, inventors continue to radically revolutionize. Enter, compressed-air-powered vehicles (CAVs).

A Hidden History

First created in the mid-1800s, CAVs vied for market share until the early 1900s, when the affordability and versatility of electric vehicles (EVs) and gasoline-powered internal combustion engines (ICEs) overwhelmed CAVs meager advantages. Compressed air systems were, and still are, used to propel locomotives, trams and trolleys.

CAVs have been repackaged for the 21st century. Riding on the coattails of optimistic press releases from virgin start-up companies, they have promised much, but beyond dallying in exhibitions, they have given little, lethargically relaxing on the sidelines. However, companies like Motor Development International (MDI), Air Car Factories, Zero Pollution Motors, K’Airmobiles and Tata Motors are determined to sooner or later unleash air-powered vehicles upon the world.

Function & Task

In theory, CAVs are simple. A tank, crafted from sturdy material such as steel, aluminum or carbon fiber, is filled with compressed air. Upon command, a value releases a powerful stream of compressed air to the piston chamber, which propels the vehicle.

However, without a supplementary system, many CAVs will be unable to stride past 35-mph. Therefore, there are two alternatives: an internal air compressor, powered by electricity or another fuel (e.g. gasoline, diesel, bio-fuel, hydrogen), or a hybrid system.

Budget-Consciousness Is Better

Many budget-conscious buyers, already fearful of rising petroleum prices, dread six-figure “green” transportation. While it is difficult to pinpoint prices, as mass production CAVs have yet to be released in the United States, estimates run on the low side, anywhere from $10,000 for pocket-sized pods to $30,000 for suburban-like monsters. Refilling may be as low as $2. Other cost considerations include the supplementary fuel (gasoline) and replacement parts. For cars of this caliber, parts may be enormously difficult to obtain.

Eco-Friendly Enough?

CAVs produce zero tailpipe emissions, eliminating carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, dioxins and particulate matter pollution. Hybrid CAVs will emit a limited quantity of tailpipe pollution from petroleum-based fuels. Indirectly, any electric motors will be powered from electricity probably derived from coal.

Back to the Future

Promises of CAVs run rampant, but sales numbers seem forgotten. Unfortunately, CAVs are generally the mere dalliances of automotive concept engineers. Very few commercial, affordable CAVs have ever been successfully released anywhere. There are, however, plans to do so, albeit belated and postponed.

In partnership with Tata Motors and Zero Pollution Motors, MDI plans to import the Air Car from Indian burbs to America streets in 2008 – no 2009 – no 2010 – wait now it's 2011, following complaints of investment shortages and lack of research. Developed by Guy Negre, the Air Car is primarily designed for urban travel.

Pundits doubt the likelihood of the Air Car ever commuting on America’s streets. Its all-glue construction, minuscule cabin, and “green” competition, namely EVs, render it a mere curiosity to most drivers. However, MDI has signed contracts with several other countries, including Germany, Israel and South Africa, to which it will deliver its tiny protégé. MDI’s lineup also includes the AIRPod, the CityCat, MiniFlowAIR, and several others.

Other concepts include K’Airmobiles VPA and VPP (Vehicle with Pneumatic Assistance/Proplusion) concepts (2007), Daewoo’s Matiz air-electric hybrid, and Australian EngineAir’s air-powered rotative engine concept.

CAVs are but babies. Adolesence has just arrived, and it has yet to be seen if they shall mature during the petulant teenage years, or fade into forgetfulness.