A High-Pressure Assignment

Contributing Editor Peter Fairley scrutinizes a novel means of propulsion

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In his travels as a contributing editor for IEEE Spectrum, Peter Fairley has had some unique experiences: hanging out with electrical workers in the Libyan desert, interviewing residents of remote Bolivian villages about their solar-fed LED lamps, and hearing cyclists in Beijing gripe about their government's rejection of two-wheeled transport.

So when we called last March and asked him to drive a tiny prototype car [above] powered by compressed air and steered with a joystick, the request didn't faze him a bit. "A high-pressure job, but someone's gotta do it," he responded. Did we mention that the company behind this minicar, Motor Development International (MDI), is putting these diminutive vehicles together just outside Nice, in France?

Fairley found the prototype enticing: It's attractively styled, surprisingly quiet, feels peppy, and is easy to operate. The testing area next to the company's plant was small, though, so Fairley wasn't able to explore the vehicle's full performance envelope. He didn't even push the car past 30 kilometers per hour (19 miles per hour), and he took the curves gently, even though the car can turn on a dime. "It felt a little tippy," explains Fairley.

Though he took it easy on the test vehicle, he is much harder on the company in his article "Driving on Air," in this issue. And he's not alone in his skepticism. Unlike some of MDI's European critics, however, Fairley kept an open mind as he gathered information and conducted interviews at the company's research and fabrication facility in France's coastal playground. "Despite Nice's many distractions, the engineers at MDI are working hard in pursuit of an economical, green-transport solution. Their product deserves the close look we've tried to give it," Fairley says.

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