Are Air Cars Really An Option, Or The Next Alt-Fuel Joke?

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Airpod compressed-air cars, 2009

Airpod compressed-air cars, 2009

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Remember when electric cars were considered a bit of a joke?

With talented options like the Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S and others currently on sale, it's easy to forget that a few decades ago, their image was very different.

No style, no performance, no range--electric cars conjured images of glorified golf carts.

You can draw your own opinions on the unusual styling of Indian automaker Tata's Airpod concept (via The Verge), but it's under the skin where the real questions lie. Powered by compressed air, the Airpod would seem to be an answer to all our problems.

Except it isn't, really.

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?

It doesn't seem likely--leading us to believe that air cars will be the next big green joke.


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Comments (7)
  1. Compress air works, but it is terribly inefficient.

    Essentially, these are EVs. That is to say that the power starts with electricity, is used to compress gas (wasting much of the energy in heat) and then the compressed gas then run through an inefficient engine and the torque is used to drive the wheels.

    But the big advantage would seem to be that you don't need to buy batteries. However, you will probably need a high-tech 10,000 psi carbon fiber compressed air tank, which is not cheap.

    One interesting benefit of the technology, "free" air conditioning is possible. The expanding air in the engine can be used to produce cooling.

    You really are better off with batteries.

  2. 10,000 PSI tank is doable, but how much volume of air are we talking about here? 10 miles range?

    Also, how long does it take to "refill" that 10,000 PSI tank is another question...

  3. Right, the tanks have been build for the hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

  4. And your point is?

    H2 is there for burning mixed with intake air. Compressed air is there to push piston. Different technology and different usage rate.

    Pressure x volume gives you work. You can't carry enough volume of compressed air to give you long ranges. 10,000 PSI is nice for power, but NOT necessarily for range...

  5. My point is that 10,000 psi tanks have only recently become available thanks to government funded efforts in the hydrogen fuel cell area.

    Why do you think 10,000 psi is not needed for range? 10,000 psi (or more) is essential for range in an air car. Perhaps you are just saying that there is a lot more energy in a 10,000 psi Hydrogen tank than in a 10,000 psi air tank, which is true.

  6. Compressed air technology is, well "stupid" in my opinion. It is NOT efficient, has limited range and air compressors aren't efficient to start with. So, what is the point? Price is the only thing I can come up with...

    Your ICE is working on "compressed" air or "explosive air/fuel" mixture. Its piston is driven by the air pressue of the combustion. Compresed air as similar issues. Lot of energy will be lost as heat during compresion and volume of air is very limited.

    Powering the compressor with an additional electric motor is stupid...

  7. Air Powered Car - 80.3 MPH World Speed Record Achieved

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