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Tata and Berkeley Frigid to MDI's Air Cars

Reports from Tata Motors and UC Berkeley add to the cloud of doubt surrounding Motor Development International. But a Swiss lab vows to help.

2 min read
Tata and Berkeley Frigid to MDI's Air Cars

Indian carmaker Tata Motors is voicing concerns about the range and durability of the compressed-air powered minicar technology critically analyzed in IEEE Spectrum this month (see "Deflating the Air Car"). Tata Motors invested in French air car developer Motor Development International (MDI) in early 2007, but yesterday Mumbai-based news source DNA reported that Tata sees ongoing issues with MDI's technology.

Tata already sells vehicles that run on gasoline, compressed natural gas, and liquid petroleum gas and is launching a battery-powered sedan in Europe. However, Tata Motors' vice-president for engineering systems S Ravishankar apparently told DNA Money that the company's efforts to add air-powered cars to its fleet are hung up by range limitations:

"Air is not a fuel, it is just an energy carrier. So a tank full of air does not have the same energy as a tank full of CNG. Any vehicle using only compressed air to run would face problems of range."

When asked whether this means that "the 'Air Car' project off?," Ravishankar declined to comment. Instead, Ravishankar added that excessive cooling of the air car's pneumatic engine is also presenting a challenge.

Spectrum's analysis of the thermodynamics of MDI's AirPod concluded that the minicar is not energy efficient relative to electric vehicles, and unlikely to deliver on its promised 200-kilometer-plus range. New York Times columnist Jim Motavalli pour further cold water on pneumatic propulsion last week, reporting on a UC Berkeley report on the poor efficiency of pneumatic vehicles.

MDI, for its part, continues to talk up the AirPod's imminent commercialization, and has forged what may be the firm's first university partnership since an unsatisfying collaboration with France's prestigious École des Mines de Paris (which deflated ambitious range claims for an early version of MDI's technology). Switzerland's ArcInfo reports this week that an MDI partner in Reconvilier will commence manufacturing of the AirPod "from March" and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne will fund a doctoral student to help boost the efficiency of MDI's air compressor stations.

The vapor thickens!

Image caption: Air France and KLM agreed to test a dozen AirPods starting in Spring 2009 but still await delivery from MDI.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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