Tata Motors recently showcased its new AirPod – a car that runs on compressed air using technology developed by Luxembourgâ€™s MDI. The AirPod, currently in the prototype stage, is set to become commercially available in a few years. The AirPod runs on a combination compressed air and battery-powered electric motor. What is truly revolutionary is that the ease of converting air into an energy source using simple compressors means charging stations can be placed anywhere, and they require no provisioning â€” no trucks delivering gas, ethanol, or hydrogen â€” and they produce no emissions, just discharge of the air. Like conventional electric vehicles, it also generates and stores some energy while braking. The Verge, reporting on the car, opines that while concept still seems a bit shaky, it could offer cheaper and more environmentally friendly recharging without waiting for something like IBM’s lithium-air battery.
Designer Stowe Boyd writes in a glowing review of the AirPod,
This is breakthrough design: it undercuts most of the negatives of the system it is designed to replace. And unlike other alternatives to traditional cars, it does not require an entire supply chain to exist before becoming practical in a single location. A city like New York could roll out a citywide fleet of AirPods Just like it is rolling out a bike sharing program (although the cityâ€™s bike share program has been delayed). It doesnâ€™t need to build nuclear reactors, or deal with some hard-to-transport alternative fuel. In fact, New York City could simply repurpose existing gas stations or parking lots with compressors, and card readers.
The AirPod can run 125mi (200k) at a top speed between 28 to 43mph (45 to 70kph). The car is intended for a single rider, and has a small cargo area in the back. While the technology may be a breakthrough in clean and environmentally friendly engines, the single-user design of the car may make it less than practical for a lot of users, especially in the Indian market and other such overly congested areas of the world.
Moreover, as Green Car Reports points out, the car may not be the answer to all our problems, since
Compressed air can be made to work as a method of propulsion, but it requires too many compromises–for now, at least–in order to make a road vehicle that runs on air…Light weight is an absolute requirement, and that doesn’t just mean “lighter than most cars”, but lightness at the expense of most other things. The Airpod is a unique piece of product design but even those used to Smart ForTwos and Renault Twizys might shy away from something that looks so vulnerable.
Speed isn’t really an option either, with a top speed of between 28-43 mph. And although the car is built on the premise of using compressed air to run, one of the running options suggested is to use an electric motor to compress air while you’re driving along. Get to that stage, and you might wonder if it makes more sense to use that motor to power the vehicle in the first place…
Tata still has no solid production plans yet, nor do any of the other companies working on air cars. There are clearly problems that need addressing, but will there ever be an air car that’s a practical enough proposition to tempt people away from electric cars of the future?
So will the AirPod just end up being another alternate-fuel joke? Or can it actually be developed into a practical vehicle that has the potential to replace conventional and other alt energy and electric vehicles in the market? I’d argue that it’s current single-person design could spell its failure and that Tata needs to work on different kinds of models for an air-powered car. While the tiny car may work for a minimal percentage of automobile consumers both in India and other parts of the world, the greater need for the masses is still better public transport. If the air-compression technology could somehow power buses and metros, that may indeed be the future of transportation.