PARIS — Record-high oil prices might seem like bad news for the auto industry. But one European manufacturer plans to make a type of car unaffected by $50-a-barrel crude — cars that run on compressed air.
Luxembourg-based Moteur Developpment International is gearing up for the launch of its Air Car line next year.
"It's safe, doesn't pollute, doesn't explode, it's not poisonous and it's not expensive," said MDI representative Sebastien Braud.
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 $9,850. The CitiCATS six-seater sedan will retail for $16,000.
How it works
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 $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."
The Air Car's pistons, pumped by the escaping compressed air, can take the vehicle up to 70 miles per hour. It can travel 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 11 miles a day. And the only exhaust that comes out of the tail pipe is cold air.
Limited appeal, benefits?
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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