AutoblogGreen Q&A: Miguel Celades, sales manager of MDI (they make the Air Car)

We've had already a few posts about MDI's Air Car, a vehicle which is powered by stored compressed air. Although we couldn't make it to Nice to interview its creator, Guy Nègre, we could visit MDI's Sales Manager, based in Barcelona. And it was a very enjoyable chat (although we'll need to go to Nice to test the car).

AutoblogGreen: Thanks Mr. Celades for having us here in your office. You have been and are involved in many businesses, so how did you get involved with MDI not even coming from the car industry?

Miguel Celades: I had been interested for long in finding out wether the water-powered car existed. One day, I metioned this to a friend of mine and he told me that I should be stopping looking for that and instead focus on something realistic but groundbreaking. He introduced me to Guy Nègre, the creator of the compressed air engine, back in mid-1998.

ABG: So tell us a little bit about Mr. Nègre and how you met him.

(Continue reading after the jump to find out some history, what MDI is planning for the near future, some highlights on their business model and their agreement with Tata Motors)

MC: He's absolutely a genius. He had worked as an external consultant for Renault's Formula 1 development teams, for more than 20 years. Did you know that F1 cars get their engines started with compressed air? That's where he got the inspiration to use the air to power completely the car. When I saw it, I fell in love with the concept.

ABG: But how did you get involved?

MC: Nègre needed someone to help him on both the financial and the media promotion (holds up five 4-inch-thick files of press releases). If he couldn't get the money, the car wouldn't be manufactured. He had turned to Renault before and they declined. They said they couldn't change their manufacturing plants. Therefore he took the decision to fully develop the car because the engine was already set in 1999. I suggested that a franchise system would save on initial investment. Our first official presentation was held in Barcelona at the beginning of 2000.

ABG: So how was it received? How did the project evolve?

MC: We sold all our franchises for Western Europe and Latin America in less than 2 years! The press loved us! It's a now and ready alternative. We are looking for franchisees in North America now. However, R+D spends always all the money you can assign to and at a certain point of time, around 2003, the project lost momentum. But then an automaker finally showed interest.

ABG: Tata Motors from India (Celades shows a picture of Mr. Tata and Mr. Nègre signing the agreement last January). How was that?

MC: Tata sent a bunch of engineers to check if the project was serious. For more than 3 years Mr. Nègre had Tata engineers (and lawyers) checking the technology and doing their own tests. MDI, at the same time, learnt from Tata engineers a lot of industrial know-how.

ABG: So it's everything set now. When will we be able to purchase one car?

MC: Hopefully by next year. Manufacturing such a new technology with so many groundbreaking features it isn't an easy task. But our partners are doing their homework and everything is on the go. MB launched the Smart five years later than promised.

ABG: Which models will make the MDI/Tata (brand yet to be defined) offerings?

MC: We are releasing two types of franchises which will have two arrays of cars. One will manufacture the MiniCAT and the compact range (check them here) and the other wil make OneCAT models (here).

ABG: Besides the engine, which other features could you outline from your models?

MC: Instead of 30 kg (66 pounds) of cables to control all switches there is a single circuit with a single cable an everything is wired to it and coded by radiofrequency. You can just remove a piece of ithis circuit (the "key") to make the car unusable for thieves. The automatic gears work with pads, like F1 cars or Porsche's Tiptronic

ABG: How about the outside?

MC: MDI models are not welded. Our cars are made from a sturdy tubular frame steel chassis which is kept solidly in place with the same adhesive used for airplanes manufacturing. Then the bodywork is a sandwiched double layer of fiberglass, with special porexpan in the middle. This saves a lot of weight.

ABG: But is that arrangement safe enough for crash standards?

MC: The chassis is extremely strong. The force you need to break the fiberglass panels is as strong as for steel. This all makes a solid and light structure, Our seatbelts are fastened to the structure and not to the bodywork. .

ABG: Let's speak about the engine. What have the latest developments been?

MC: Bifuel technology. Do you remember the law of Thermodynamics? The warmer a gas is, the more it expands. Currently our engines are powered by heated air. The tanks store compressed air at 300 bar, a total of 90m3. That's good for about 100 km (60 miles) range and that's how our prototypes worked at the beginning and this is how they work in city mode. But if you warm this air when it comes out of the tanks, like a gas water heater, there is more volume of air available for the pistons. This has extended mileage to more than 800 km (500 miles).

ABG: So you still use gasoline...

MC: The heater can work with any type of fuel. Use biodiesel or bioethanol and it becomes a carbon neutral vehicle. If you don't want to burn anything, just use it in pure compressed air mode.

ABG: How much fuel do you need to extend the range that much?

MC: 1.5l/100 km (158 mpg) - That's good for CO2 emissions of 30-35 g/km

ABG: But that means I need to both add fuel and air to the vehicle, although 75 percent less fuel than an efficient diesel supermini.That can make gas stations owners a bit nervous.

MC: Not at all. They can install air compressors (at 35,000 EUR) and sell compressed air that fill the tanks in 3 minutes. Your home charger would take 3 or 4 hours. It takes 22kWh of electricity to fill in the 90m3 of air in the tanks.However, "a black hand" will always be on MDI because our cars make governments (less oil to tax on) other carmakers and oil cartels don't want us to succeed.

ABG: Finally, tell us a little bit about your franchised system of factories.

MC: MDI proposes a set of smaller factories near the customers. Instead of a big factory that makes full cars and investing on delivery, our production systems need only the main machinery to be installed and then only the powertrains shipped regularly. Each franchised factory will have a lesser ratio of cars per factory. It benefits the investor, it benefits local economies and it benefits the environment because vehicles need not to be hauled around. This helps a lot in avoiding relocation to countries with lower labor costs because our leaner local manufacturing franchise system is profitable.

ABG: Thanks a lot for your time.


[Thanks to our readers for pointing out the kWh instead of kW]

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