2010 MDI AIRPod First Drive

airpod-610bThe heart of the 2010 MDI AIRPod is a piston engine that has been specially adapted by MDI to run on compressed air. The expansion of the compressed air within the cylinders moves the pistons. The engine is “fueled” by a system of high-pressure air tanks. Built by EADS, an aerospace firm, the tanks are constructed of lightweight carbon-fiber. Though the tanks are presently limited to a capacity of 80 liters (21.1 gallons) at 200 bars of pressure (2,900 psi), MDI plans an increase to 200 liters (53 gallons) and 300 bars of pressure (4,400 psi, which is actually substantially less than the 10,000-psi rating of hydrogen tanks used in fuel-cell vehicles) for the first production models of the AIRPod, set to be built by the end of this year.

As a prototype, the AIRPod we’ve come to drive is limited to a top speed of only 50 km/h (30 mph). The top speed of future models will be 80 km/h (50 mph).

With one person onboard and the car running solely on air power, MDI estimates the AIRPod’s range at between 90 and 125 miles. When the tanks are empty, a recharge of air can take as little as two minutes (MDI conveniently has an industrial-strength air refueling station at its facility). The company says the infrastructure needed to build air refueling stations will cost only a fraction of that needed to establish a network of hydrogen refueling stations, the holy grail of the eco-car world. MDI claims running costs amount to only €1 per 200 km (a penny per mile).

At first glance, the 2010 MDI AIRPod looks like a prop from some science-fiction movie. Glass hatches sweep up and over the front and rear of the air car. There are two large circular windows cut into either side, along with two smaller windows located on either side of the driver seat. It’s a kind of tricycle, not so different in concept from Karl Benz’s 1885 Motorwagen, only with twin 100/90R16 tires in back and tiny, twin 10-by-4.00-5 tires in front.

The AIRPod measures 81.5 inches long, 63 inches wide and 68.5 inches tall. Built with a simple space frame and carbon-fiber bodywork, it weighs 485 pounds. The AIRPod has been conceived to meet specifications for a new breed of city vehicles set by the municipal government of Paris, where 500cc cars (as well as the Smart Fortwo) are already popular.

To step aboard the AIRPod, you open the hatch, swing it upward and enter the front of the car. It all feels very Luke Skywalker-esque. There are no side doors, and there is seating for only the driver up front. A space-age-looking rearward-facing bench seat is accessed by the rear hatch and is wide enough to accommodate three adults.

Running on Air
A flick of a switch and the 2010 MDI AIRPod fires to life. The engine is mounted in the center of the car, beneath the seats, emitting a friendly tappa-tappa-tappa that’s more John Deere than Millennium Falcon. The tiny 180cc, two-cylinder engine is rated at 5.4 horsepower and 11 pound-feet of torque with 261 psi of air pressure. An MDI spokesperson explains to us that upgrades will also boost power for the upcoming AIRPod GT model to 6 kW — still just 8 hp.

One thing you won’t find in an AIRPod is a steering wheel. Steering is controlled by a joystick mounted on the right armrest of the driver seat. Acceleration and braking were originally supposed to be controlled by this stick, but MDI confided that the system proved awkward to use. Small aluminum gas and brake pedals now sprout from the floor. A small instrument panel with displays for speed and driving range is planned, but, like the forthcoming acoustic insulation around the engine, had not been fitted to this prototype.

Warp Factor 1
Acceleration proves to be fairly glacial, even if the huge expanse of glass ahead of the driver makes it seem as if we’re traveling much faster. Not that we are begging to go quicker. Pavement cracks and bumps send jolts through the cabin that have us bouncing around in the driver seat. MDI says a softer suspension is planned for production models. Airbags are also set to be fitted, although this test car lacks even seatbelts. Did we mention that this is a prototype?

With less than 10 hp, we never expected the AIRPod to pin us to the back of our seat. The air car lacks straight-line thrills, but its tiny size and nimble steering make it feel like an amusement park ride. With the joystick pressed far to the left or right, the AIRPod pirouettes like a tilt-a-whirl, with a turning circle of 6.2 feet. As we flick the joystick left and right at cruising speed, the tiny AIRPod darts around the tarmac like a hyperactive Jack Russell terrier.

But after only a few minutes driving, it was us, not the car, doing all the panting. The 2010 MDI AIRPod has futuristic looks and fancy windows, but none of them open and there is no air-conditioning. MDI is likely to add both before serial production begins late this year; otherwise it had better focus on sales in Arctic regions.

The Future Is Now
Testing any prototype carries with it the likelihood that it’ll seem underdeveloped in some respect, but let’s face it, the fact that an air-powered car exists at all is pretty cool.

The AIRPod has already undergone a host of changes in the past few months. The toothed rubber belts that once delivered power from the engine to each rear wheel have been replaced by a simple chain drive. And the pair of small front wheels will be replaced by one. MDI says that these improvements alone help result in up to 20 percent greater range and efficiency.

Yet the most exciting feature is MDI’s upcoming “dual-energy” system. MDI says that dual-energy has the potential to provide driving range and performance comparable to a conventional car. Using the same basic propulsion system of an air-powered engine and air tanks, dual-energy adds a small supplemental motor that heats and expands air as it rushes from the tanks to the engine.

This is not like the combination of gasoline and electric motor you’ll find under the hood of a Toyota Prius, or the upcoming Chevrolet Volt. The extra engine in MDI’s dual-energy system is not much bigger than a pack of cigarettes and — in the words of an MDI rep — is little more than “a pilot light” to heat engine air. Think of it as a supercharger. With the touch of a button, a driver will be able to choose between mono-energy (air power only), dual-energy (air power with a boost from the extra motor) or an automatic system that chooses for you (depending on vehicle speed).

Air Power Goes Global
In Europe, a fleet of one dozen 2010 MDI AIRPods is already set to serve as passenger and cargo shuttles in cooperation with Air France and KLM airlines. The first delivery occurred within days of our test-drive, and MDI workers were busy constructing the other AIRPods that will participate in this six-month trial at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris and Schipol airport in Amsterdam.

MDI confirms that similar arrangements are under discussion with governments, private companies and universities around the world. This includes the U.S. — though MDI remains tight-lipped about specifics. One matter the company did clarify was an erroneous report that its air-powered vehicles could arrive in America by the end of the year. The U.S. remains a top priority, according to MDI, but sales there remain three to four years into the future.

MDI has already licensed its air-power technology to Indian carmaker Tata Motors. Ratan Tata, CEO of Tata Motors and the Tata Group, recently reaffirmed his company’s commitment to zero-emissions vehicles, including electrics and air power. However, MDI says that its agreement limits sales of any air-powered Tata vehicle to India only.

In Europe, commercial sales of the AIRPod are scheduled to begin in France by the end of this year. The starting price of €6,000 ($8,380) will be nearly halved, thanks to various bonuses and green-car sales incentives awarded by the government. By the end of 2010, MDI hopes to begin production of larger and more refined models like the OneFlowAIR convertible. The company also claims that air-power engines are scalable, meaning that air-powered sedans, trucks and even buses are on the drawing board.