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CARROS, France - A car that runs on air?
What seemed like a pipe dream may soon become reality as Frenchman Guy Negre hopes versions of his compressed air car will be produced in India this year by Tata Motors Ltd after a 15 year quest for backers for his invention.
Negre believes the time is right for his design with oil prices at record highs and pressure on carmakers to improve the fuel efficiency of their vehicles.
"It is clear that with oil at $100 a barrel this will force people to change their use of fuel and pollute less," Negre told Reuters in an interview at his firm Motor Development International (MDI), based near Nice in the south of France.
"My car is zero pollution in town and almost no pollution on the highways," he added, saying the vehicle could travel 100 kilometres at a cost of one euro in fuel.
The former Formula One motor racing engineer's invention depends on pressurised air to move the pistons, which in turn help to compress the air again in a reservoir. The engine also has an electric motor, which needs to be periodically recharged, to top up the air pressure.
The bottles of compressed air -- similar to those used by divers -- can be filled up at service stations in several minutes.
The latest versions of the cars -- MDI made an entire series of prototypes of engines and vehicles -- also include a fuel engine option to extend the car's range when not in reach of a special power plug or service station.
Tata, India's largest carmaker with revenue of $7.2 billion in its last financial year, concluded a deal in 2007, investing 20 million euros. Pre-production in India is set for 2008, Negre said.
The vehicle, protected by some 50 patents, will cost some 3,500 to 4,000 euros. Using composite materials, it will weigh not more than 330 kilos and its maximum speed is 150 kilometres per hour.
"The lighter the vehicle, the less it consumes and the less its pollutes and the cheaper it is; it's simple," Negre said.
MDI's models which typically have a rounded shape a bit like a speech balloon in a cartoon include the Minicat urban vehicle, the Citycat for longer distances with an added tank for ethanol, diesel or bio-fuel and a taxi version.
Negre said he aimed to set up mini factories in regions where the car is used. "No transport, no parts suppliers. Everything will be made at the place of sale in production units that can make one car per half hour," said Negre.
"That is more profitable, more ecological than the big factories of the large carmakers."
Negre is not the only inventor working on compressed air engines. Urugay's Armando Regusci, Australia's Angelo di Pietro and South Korea's Chul-Seung Cho have also produced designs.
But Negre has the backing of Tata, whose global ambitions were last week underscored when it was named preferred buyer of the Jaguar and Land Rover brands from Ford Motor Co.