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Tata backing French car fueled by compressed-air - extended

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.  Tata group to launch world’s cheapest car.

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 informed 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 kilometers at a cost of one euro in fuel. The former Formula One motor racing engineer’s invention depends on pressurized 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 Motors, India’s largest carmaker concluded a deal in 2007, investing €20 million ($29.4 million). 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. Using composite materials, it will weigh not more than 330 kilos (727.5 lb) and its maximum speed is 150 kilometers (93.21 miles) 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. Uruguay’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. (Petrolplaza)

Ratan Tata, the reclusive tycoon, who heads the tea-to-steel conglomerate, will kick off an auto show here with the unveiling of the long-awaited “People’s Car”, which will carry a sticker price of 100,000 rupees ($2,500). The cheap car is a pet project of the Cornell-trained architect Ratan Tata, who helped design it, and is aimed at getting Indian families off their motorbikes and into cars. Ratan Tata, 70, has spearheaded the growth strategy of the company known for its philanthropic values. “I hope to make a contribution to making life safer for them (the masses),” he said on its web site.

Small cars are expected to dominate the biennial auto show, which has become one of Asia’s largest and is expected to draw 1.5 million visitors, up from one million in 2006, organizers say. “India’s auto industry has found a new confidence -- the show can be seen as the automotive industry coming of age,” said Ravi Kant, president of the Society of Indian Automobiles (Siam). Domestic and international carmakers have been in a race to corner India’s small car market, which accounts for over two-thirds of domestic sales in the country of 1.1 billion people. Small car sales are expected to nearly double to around two million units by 2010 as India’s population becomes more affluent and trades up from motorcycles to cars.

The eight-day show features automakers from around the world from Honda, Ford, Hyundai and Volkswagen to luxury carmakers like BMW and Daimler, which are reaching out to India’s new free-spending wealthy in an economy growing by 9%. India’s automotive industry, which produces 1.5 million vehicles annually, is worth $34 billion a year and contributes 5% of the country’s GDP. An Indian government mission plan aims for automotive sales to more than quadruple to $145 billion by 2016, and for indirect and direct auto sector employment to grow to 25 million from 13 million today.

The new car to be unveiled by the Tatas could “revolutionize car costs downward,” said leading Indian car analyst Murad Ali Baig. “This car is bound to be followed by other low-cost ones. A lot of people just want a car that takes them from home to the market, they don’t want something fancy or they want something small as a second car," he told AFP.

Indian motorcycle maker Bajaj and France’s Renault are looking at making a $3,000 car for the Indian market that would get 34 kilometers (21 miles) per liter of fuel. Tata has said it is targeting its car at Indian and other emerging markets. The car would cost about half the price of its nearest rival in the Indian market made by Japanese-owned Maruti Suzuki that sells for $4,800. A Tata Motors board member said the car would get 25 kilometers per liter of fuel. Tata has said it believes it could eventually sell one million “People’s Cars” annually.

Environmentalists see clouds on the horizon if the cheap car is a winner, fearing it will further congest India’s clogged roads and add to choking pollution. But Tata says the car will create no more pollution than a motorbike. India’s car market is a huge draw because car penetration is just seven per 1,000 people compared to 550 per 1,000 in such countries as Germany or 476 in France, said Dilip Chenoy, Siam director general. (macaudailytimesnews)