Anyone claiming to be an automotive journalist or even a technical writer can incur instant and lasting embarrassment simply by letting his or her byline be attached to any story about MDI’s (short for Motor Development International) Compressed Air Powered Automobile. It’s been known by many names since the company was first formed in Luxembourg in 1991 by Guy Negre, who claims to be an aeronautics engineer and trained engine manufacturer. And in 2005 the Los Angeles Times reported that his miracle car, capable of 70 mph with a 120-mile range, would come to market soon. According to what the LA Times was told, there “would be two models, the MiniCat at $10,000 and the CitiCat at a mere $16,000.” And here’s what you bought, the paper reported: A car with the equivalent of 25 horsepower that runs on nothing more than compressed air.
One would think a journalist would have verified or at least questioned how, with just a 25hp engine, the CitiCat really could maneuver six passengers around in LA traffic.
That column continued that MDI hoped to raise money by selling hundreds of franchises. They had already sold 40 in France, Spain, South Africa and New Zealand, it claimed.
Emperor’s New Car?
In May of 2007, none other than Popular Mechanics ran a story about the world’s first air-powered car, reporting that it would be out by the following summer. Tata Motors of India had purchased the rights to produce Negre’s engine — assuming Tata could work out the minor problem that the car did not actually operate as hyped. This article claimed that the car would have a 340-liter compressed air tank for a 120-mile range, but wisely pointed out that this car would never be sold in America because of its “all-glue” construction.
Of course, stories and even media videos about MDI’s compressed air car have been out in the public domain since the mid-1990s, always with the claim that this car is moments from appearing at a dealership near you. What no writer seemed interested in reporting was the fact that on MDI’s own website in a 2003 test of their original vehicle in France, they managed to go only 7.22 kilometers before the compressed air tank ran dry. On the same page, in fairness, the company promised that with minor mechanical improvements the vehicle would achieve a 212-kilometer range.
But it is true that Tata bought into the concept and equally true that it promised to build the vehicle in 2009 and then again in 2012 with a 300-kilometer range — as was pointed out in the very prestigious Scientific American; only now the top speed limit claimed was just 34 mph.
By 2014 Torque News was asking, “Whatever happened to that compressed air car, anyhow?” Good question. Because only Torque News pointed out that the concept version of what is now known as the Tata Air Car was shown in May of 2012, “with questionable science and wild engineering claims,” speculating that likely nothing would ever come of this vehicle. That same summer, AutoWeek published a column questioning whether this long-gestated compressed air car was ever coming to market.
Yet that same month The Atlantic’s City Lab published a glowing, technically impressed article on the Air Car’s potential, claiming that its compressed air tanks were not the 340-liter model previously claimed, but a mere 175 liters. Magically, the range was 125 miles, although the Air Car was capable of just 40 mph according to The Atlantic.
Then on May 6 this year, AutoWeek published yet another article, discussing how Ethan Tucker and singer Pat Boone went on ABC’s Shark Tank with, you guessed it, the AirPod, the most recent name and incarnation of this vehicle. Robert Herjavec offered to invest $5 million if the two men could produce the rights to manufacture and sell this car throughout the U.S.
The article went on to say that the car now weighs only 600 pounds and has a top speed of 50 mph and a range of 80 miles. The rumored location for the first factory will be in Hawaii. Come to think of it, a previous column online also noted that Tata Motors might be planning a factory for this air car in Hawaii.
At this point you have to ask, has everyone in the media lost their ever-loving minds? It has been 24 years since Guy Negre’s MDI was created and word of the coming car that ran on compressed air has made the rounds ever since — though not the car itself.
Its range has gone from the 4.48 miles the company attested to, on its own website, to a promised 186 miles promised at one point by Tata Motors. The compressed air tanks’ capacity, meanwhile, has been anything from 175 liters to 350. Likewise, the promised speed has gone from 80 down to the scientifically calculated 38 mph — based on compressed air’s lack of efficiency at running a motor. We’ve also seen promises that you can refill the compressed air tank in just 1.5 minutes at a refilling station.
And really, who would build an automobile factory in Hawaii? Virtually every car built there would have to be exported, to the U.S. or elsewhere, adding huge costs to each unit.
Oh, and did I mention that this AirPod is a three-wheeler? Those vehicles are not known for their stability in high-speed emergency maneuvers.
From the day I first reported on this over-hyped, nonsensical vehicle back in the 90s, I pointed out how much compressed air it would take to move a car just one mile, no matter how many atmospheres of pressure the tanks could safely hold. So I suggested this car was never coming to market. Then I ran across MDI’s own test, which showed that its vehicle didn’t even make 5 miles before running out of compressed air — and at that point I knew this mythic automotive story was over.
But it wasn’t. Some of the finest and most respected magazines and newspapers continue to write about this car every time someone new says it’s about to go into production. Nobody fact-checks its science; if they did they’d see that not one claim made by any manufacturer, real or imminent, has ever come to pass. If nothing else, fact-checking the size of the tank, the speed and the range of this car — and finding out that each alternating claim changes on a yearly basis — should be a problematical alarm to the latest journalist covering this epic automotive myth.
Good gosh, if your media outlet doesn’t have a Lexis-Nexis account, Google works just fine on this subject.
Let’s face it, Tesla may not have made one penny since it opened a decade ago, but it has brought two electric cars to market. And the latest one is one of the most acclaimed vehicles of the past 50 years.
In 1982 there was an ad in Popular Science for Paul Moller’s flying saucer you would soon be able to buy. And his flawless credentials include being a Professor Emeritus at the University of California Davis and a PhD in aerodynamics. You can even see all of his designs today at www.moller.com. What I can’t see there is where or when over the last 32 years these futuristic vehicles have ever taken off, despite that 1982 ad’s promise. And yet last year the Huffington Post ran an article reporting that Moller’s SkyCar is just around the corner from becoming a retail reality.
Maybe someone should introduce Dr. Moller to Guy Negre; maybe together they can make a flying saucer that runs on compressed air.
© Ed Wallace 2015
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism. He hosts Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com.