Tata Motors, India's largest auto manufacturer (posting sales of $27 billion USD), has been struggling to make a world wide name for itself. Their latest plan? Take their concept compressed air-powered car and send it to production.
For the past few years, alternative fuel conferences and blogs have been talking about compressed air as a power source. Some love it, some see it as an object of derision. Some don't know what to think. One of the strongest backers of air power has been Tata India.
The automaker is best known for the Tata Nano car, billed as the world's least expensive car (selling for around $3,500 US). Using the drive train from the European concept AIRpod from MDI, Tata showed a concept taxi car a year or so ago (pictured here). The claim was that it was capable of about 50 miles per hour with an 80 mile range - with a compressed air tank whose refill time was only two minutes.
The problem is that compressed air isn't exactly the most efficient way to propel a vehicle. While it might work fine for a child's toy (anyone else play with balloon-powered boats and cars as a kid?) or even a bicycle, it doesn't really scale up well. Compressed air is about 25-30% fuel efficient.
Tata has been working with MDI since 2007 on compressed air-powered cars. MDI has a track record of making "interesting" claims and putting off showing any tangible results. Both MDI and Tata have only fielded short-range demonstration models, usually using 350-bar compression (about 3,500 psi) in the tank - far denser than the compressed air found in your car tire pump or the local mechanic's shop. The 2-minute refill time is likely based on using an industrial air pump used to fill heavy cylinders for manufacturing use. Those pumps are not cheap and renting or leasing pre-filled bottles would become expensive, fast.
Tata's official press release says that phase one of its two-phase agreement with MDI has been completed. That phase was proof of concept, which they say has been given in two Tata-made vehicles. The second phase, commencing now, is to fine tune it for market "over the coming years."
Will we ever see a production compressed air-powered car? Maybe. Will it be able to perform well enough to sell in a world market? Don't count on it.