Can Compressed Air Drive The Next City Car?

A carmaker with plans to build a subcompact car powered by compressed air has just receive a big boost towards building its first U.S. factory.

Pat Boone, a 1950’s musician best known for rock ‘n’ roll hits like “Ain’t That a Shame,” teamed up with Ethan Tucker from Zero Pollution Motors (ZPM) to pitch the car on ABC’S show “Shark Tank.” One of the sharks (aka investors), Robert Herjavec, agreed to invest $5 million in ZPM in exchange for a 50 percent stake in the company.

Herjavec’s newest investment is called the AIRPod. Though it will most likely be slotted amongst similar alternatively fueled mini cars, like the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive or the Fiat 500E, there is no risk of misidentifying the AIRPod. This bubble-shaped car is less than 7 feet long, uses its front and rear windshields as doors and steers by a single joystick.

Driving the rear-wheel car is a two-cylinder engine. In place of an electric battery or fuel tank is a Type IV tank with a thermoplastic liner, holding compressed air. Cyril Negre, who designed the car with his father, Guy, in Southern France, explained how the AIRPod operates:

“The compressed air engine works very simply,” said Cyril. “It is just using the air we’ve just compressed into a tank and then we use this compressed air to move some pistons into the engine that drive directly the crankshaft and goes to the wheels and movement and drive the car.”

Guy Negre, co-designer of the AIRPod and head of MDI (Motor development International) company, sits in his "Airpod One" prototype. (Photo credit VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

Guy Negre, co-designer of the AIRPod and head of MDI (Motor development International) company, sits in his “Airpod One” prototype. (Photo credit VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

After filling the tank – which takes four hours with a regular plug-in outlet or three minutes with a stationary air compressor – the AIRPod can travel about 100 emission-free miles.

“I’m a consumer coming to a store to buy an air car or a battery car. Tell me why I’m going to buy the air car,” Herjavec told Boone and Tucker on “Shark Tank.”

“There’s one big difference,” replied Tucker. “The difference is if there’s a compressor at a gas station, just like you fill up your tires, you can fill up your car.”

SEE ALSO: PSA Shelves Hybrid Air Project While Awaiting New Partners

This readily available supply of fuel, a hiccup afflicting technology such as hydrogen powered cars, is not the only salient distinction. With no batteries for energy storage, the AIRPod isn’t burdened with extra weight or cost. Total curb weight is 617 pounds, and ZPM quoted the retail price at “slightly over” $10,000.

Even using ZPM’s shorter urban range estimate of 80 miles, the car company is predicting the lifespan of the AIRPod at 1.6 million miles. No real-world examples were provided to authenticate this, but even if the car lasts for half of that life expectancy, it will be $10,000 well spent.

The AIRPod’s creators say its affordable price, nimble handling and the ability to refuel quickly and cheaply all blend together to create the ideal city car.

“It’s very agile. There’s no driving wheel, just a joystick. And it’s very comfortable because you are driving in the seat with this wonderful view all around you because you are seeing everywhere. It’s a real new way to drive into the city,” said Cyril.

Not everyone is sold on the concept, however. IEEE Spectrum, a professional association centered on technology and innovation, raised doubts over AIRPod’s specs after analyzing the system.

Guy Negre head of MDI (Motor development International) company sits in his "Airpod One" prototype of a non polluting minicar driven with a joystick, activated by compressed air on October 9, 2008 in Nice, southern France. (Photo credit VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

Guy Negre head of MDI (Motor development International) company sits in his “Airpod One” prototype of a non polluting minicar driven with a joystick, activated by compressed air on October 9, 2008 in Nice, southern France. (Photo credit VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

“IEEE Spectrum estimated that the AIRPod’s range could be less than a third of what MDI has claimed, due to energy being wasted in the process of expanding the air before it is sent to the engine,” said Lisa Zyga at Phys.org.

“Some automotive engineers think that compressed air is simply not a practical power source for vehicles due to the laws of thermodynamics. They point out that the AIRPod’s 200-liter tank doesn’t carry much more energy than one liter of gasoline.

“In the IEEE Spectrum, two engineers, Denis Clodic of the Ecole des Mines de Paris and Pascal Higelin of the University of Orléans, said that pneumatic hybrids (vehicles that combine compressed air and fuel combustion) are promising. But they worry that, if MDI’s AIRPod fails, the entire concept of compressed air might suffer from the negative experience.”

There are other features on the AIRPod that may deter some buyers. Even smaller than the already cramped Fiat 500E, the standard AIRPod only holds up to four passengers (three adults and a child) with minimal space for cargo. And its top speed of 50 mph may result in a frightening ride on the freeway.

Safety will also be a question mark. ZPM doesn’t say what safety equipment will be mounted in the AIRPod, and states that “this size car does not require crash testing.”

While the design has yet to yield a production car, ZPM appears undeterred. With the $5 million “Shark Tank” investment, along with additional funds raised through sources such as Fundable.com, the carmaker is planning to build its first turnkey factory in Hawaii.

“Unlike the huge classic assembly plants, these plants will manufacture 80% of the vehicles and will sell them in the same location,” said ZPM. “This concept represents a drastic decrease in costs and logistic problems associated with the conventional assembly process (stocks and freight of finished cars to the dealers, etc.). It also has a significant beneficial impact on the environment.”

The company doesn’t say what funds, if any, are still needed before it can begin producing cars. But ZPM is predicting that the first AIRPods will be available in late 2015.

One additional snag for funding may be looming. Shark Tank’s Herjavec said he will only award his $5 million contribution if ZPM is able to manufacture and sell the AIRPod in all 50 states. But some states, including Michigan and Texas, don’t allow manufacturers to act as dealers (an issue that Tesla Motors knows all too well).