From: Laurence Frost, Associated Press
Published October 5, 2004 12:00 AM

Pricey Oil Could Be Boon for European Car that Runs on Compressed Air

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.

"It's safe, doesn't pollute, doesn't explode, it's not poisonous, and it's not expensive," said Sebastien Braud, a representative for Luxembourg-based Moteur Developpement International.

Inside the Air Car, an electric pump compresses air into a tank. The air in turn pumps pistons that take the vehicle up to 70 mph. The car can travel 50 miles at top speed on a full tank and farther at lower speeds.

The company plans to make two versions: a three-seat compact priced at US$9,850 and a six-seat sedan for $16,000.

The air pump that fuels the car plugs into an ordinary household socket and takes four hours to recharge.

"When you get home you normally plug in your cell phone," Braud said. "Well, now you do that with your car too."

Slightly pricier Air Cars 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.

The already attractive economics of the Air Car — MDI claims a recharge costs just $2.50 at French electricity prices — will become even more persuasive if oil prices stay high.

"It certainly can't hurt," said Braud. "It will help encourage people to switch over."

The company says the cars, the brainchild of former Formula One engine designer Guy Negre, initially will go on sale in France, where production is to begin in June.

But auto analysts played 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 other gas guzzlers and chose engine capacities reflecting their real needs, he said, fuel consumption would drop by one-third.

Associated Press writer Ed McCullough in Madrid contributed to this report.

Source: Associated Press

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