Running on air - Macleans.ca

Running on air

The AirPod car is cheaper than any subcompact and it gets better mileage than the Volt or Prius

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Running on air

Anja Niedringhaus/AP

It may not have the sleek style of the Chevrolet Volt or the provenance of the Toyota Prius, but the new AirPod may have them both beat on enviro cred and price. The bug-like little three-seater, made by the Swiss company Catecar, runs on nothing but thin air. (Thin air that has been highly compressed by an electric motor, to be exact.) The car can go 200 km on a four-hour charge from a 240-volt outlet. The Volt, by comparison, only goes 64 km on a similar charge. Then it must also burn gas. Compared to mass-market hybrids and electrics, the AirPod is also astonishingly cheap. At $9,500, it will cost less than any Canadian subcompact on the market and is a fraction of the Volt’s $41,000 price tag.

The AirPod is the culmination of more than a decade of engineering and testing, but European regulators have only recently given it a green light for safety and roadworthiness. Catecar says the first 150 AirPods will roll off a Swiss assembly line in March, and a new plant will be able to produce 700 per month by 2012.

The AirPod is two metres long, with two seats in the front and a third seat facing backward. The main flaw is that the engine maxes out at 70 km per hour, which means the vehicle is only good for short trips that don’t involve a highway. It’s unclear how much weight the AirPod will be able to carry, but it has been tested by Dutch airline KLM, whose employees used it to ferry small items around Schiphol Airport. Catecar has focused its initial marketing on those who buy fleets of small vehicles. Catecar says it’s in discussions to sell to municipalities and the Geneva airport.

The company only owns the rights to the Swiss and Lichtenstein markets, for now. (The air compression technology is licensed from the French company MDI.) However, Tata Motors, the largest car manufacturer in India (and owner of the Jaguar and Land Rover brands), has already claimed the technology for India. There are no plans yet to offer the AirPod in Canada, but MDI has already begun testing a version of the car in snowy conditions.