By now we’re all familiar with the chief alternative propulsion technologies used in vehicles today. Pure electric vehicles, which use a battery and electric motor, are becoming increasingly common, as are hybrid vehicles that utilise both an internal combustion engine and electric motor in some configuration or another. Although not currently built in a production capacity, hydrogen vehicles operating on the principle of proton exchange are due on the market in 2015 and, last but not least, bio fuels offer a realistic solution in a manageable timeframe.
Luxembourg-based Motor Development International, however, have been taking inspiration from a source of almost limitless abundance since 1996: air.
What is it?
MDI currently make, or are in the process of developing, five road-going vehicles – all of them are powered by compressed air. They also manufacture fuel-free generators, but it’s this, the new AirPod that we’re interested in. It is, of course, zero-emissions at point of use, although compressing the air that powers it requires energy - usually electricity from coal-fueled power stations.
With a silhouette reminiscent of Chevrolet EN-V concept, this updated version has four wheels instead of three and, with the involvement of Tata Motors, will be the first AirPod to finally see a production line. Controlled by a joystick, the Airpod is MDI’s take on urban emobility and, surprisingly, seats three adults – the driver facing forward and two passengers facing out of the back. At just 2.07m long, and with an impossibly small turning circle of 1.90m (for reference, the legendary turning circle of TX4 London cab is 8.53m), the Airpod is designed entirely for urban environments where manoeuvring space is at a premium.
The Airpod’s mechanical components sit on a cast aluminium frame clad in fibreglass as opposed to expensive carbon fibre.
How does it work?
Compressed air engines work in the same was as conventional ICE engines do, but the power comes from the expansion of compressed air in the cylinders rather than the explosions from ignited hydrocarbons. The Airpod is powered by a 430cc 2-cylinder engine that develops 7kW at 1,500rpm – enough for it to reach 70kph, and like Renault’s Twizy, a lower powered version restricted to 45kph will be available to those without a driving licence.
MDI originally declared the Airpod’s range on the urban cycle as 220km, delivered from a 175-litre fuel tank that takes around one-and-a-half minutes to refill from an industrial-spec 'Air Station'. This latest model comes with a 260-litre tank, although the air pressure has had to decrease from 350bar to 248bar to conform to regulations. The upshot is that range is now between 120km and 150km. Total weight is around 200kg, with 24kg of that accounted for by the engine.
The spirit of ‘pod’
If ever a vehicle deserved ‘pod’ in its name, it’s this one. The Airpod, however, is very close to being one of those designs (that we constantly see in futuristic cars) that ends up looking very predictable in its efforts to be avant-garde. A number of quirky features save the Airpod from this fate.
The throne-like driver’s seat, for starters, is very fun. The headrests of the passenger seats also give it Dracula-esque appeal and the joystick and toggle switches add to the futuristic design. On the outside, the car’s circular profile is echoed by four spherical windows of varying sizes on each side and the ‘AIR’ logo, through which the Airpod is fuelled. Panoramic glass screens at both ends contribute to the ovoid theme, too. Finally, the V-shaped headlight graphic and hidden front wheels give the Airpod a terrier-like aggression that’s charming in its absurdity.
Can I have one?
No, not yet. But if things go to plan you will be able to soon. Tata and MDI had aimed to put the Airpod on sale by the middle of this year. Clearly, that hasn’t happened, but the project is closer to fruition than it ever has been and the Airpod could potentially cost $10,000 - less than the aforementioned Renault Twizy.
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