Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tata Motors 'Air Car': Which Way Does the Wind Blow?

It seems like every few months, we get wind of another vehicle that is supposed to be powered by compressed air. The Mini Cat Air Car, from India-based Tata Motors, seems almost too good to be true. Tata Motors is India’s largest automobile company. It is the leader in commercial vehicles, and among the top three in passenger vehicles.

Designed by an ex-IndyCar™ engineer, the Mini Cat utilizes compressed air to move its motors’ pistons, claims zero tailpipe emissions, and an extremely low cost to run. Is it the real deal, or a lot of hot air?

Compressed-air has been used to power a wide variety of vehicles since the 1800s with only limited success, due to inherent inefficiencies. The concept found some limited success in powering locomotives, mostly used for mining, where a combustion-free energy source was desirable. Ultimately, even these were replaced by more efficient electric motors.

Several modern companies have attempted to produce a working compressed-air powered car, but none have yet to reach the consumer market.

Energine Corporation, of Korea, claimed that it was going to deliver a hybrid compressed-air/electric car, only to see its CEO arrested for making exaggerated claims.

K’Airmobiles, a French company, were another compressed air concept, but it never saw the light of day. The company was unable to procure the necessary funding, and the engineers who worked on the project, ultimately admitted that the inherent efficiency and low-running-temperature problems made the project unfeasible.

In 2010, Honda showed off the Honda Air concept car, a 1,000-pound, 4-passenger car, made out of composite materials. (While the concept sounds good, in theory, I would hazard a guess that the high price of the composite materials used in this car would make it unable to compete with other alternatively-fueld vehicles.)

The TaTa Air Car concept engine was developed by Motor Development International (“MDI”), of France, with the backing of Tata. (This version of a compressed air engine has been in development for over 20 years.) Zero Pollution Motors holds a license to produce the cars in the U.S. market.

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