In 1863, French writer Jules Verne penned Paris in the 20th Century, which predicted a transportation system fueled by compressed air. Within two years, that fantasy will be reality as French company Motor Development International will roll out the first commercial air car. A new auto technology in which cars literally run on air seems wildly outrageous -- zero fuel emissions for city driving, built-in air compressor, room for six people and a trunk. But former Formula 1 engineer Guy Negre seems to have done the impossible.

 

Negre created an engine in which the pistons jump into action spurred by bursts of expanding compressed air rather than heated fuel. Drawing inspiration from his years designing Formula 1 engines (which use compressed air for a kick at the start), Negre's technology can propel the 1,800-pound compressed-air vehicle up to 90 mph for about 800 miles. And all the while it emits cleaner air than the driver originally pumped into its carbon-fiber tank. The cars do require a small boost for sustained speeds above 35 mph, so the engine uses fuel -- any fuel from biodiesel to gasoline to even salad oil -- to compress outside air for the motor. The low emissions from this tiny bit of added fuel? About 0.14 pounds of CO2 per mile. According to data from HybridCars.com, that's up to four times less than the average vehicle and more than two times less than the cleanest vehicle available today.

 

The MDI cars (which look a bit like crayon-colored toys) will be distributed in India via Tata motors in 2009 and, according to U.S. distributor Zero Pollution Motors, stateside customers can place orders in the middle of 2009 for 2010 delivery. And just in case you were worried you'd break the bank saving the planet, ZPM plans to sell the car (named the FlowAir) for around $18,000. Everything about this new auto technology is designed for efficiency. The body of the car is constructed from fiberglass and foam, which is rust-proof and conforms to international safety-testing standards. The chassis and other parts of the car are held together with glue, in much the same way airplanes are constructed. The cars remain affordable because there will be no middleman. Customers will buy directly from the New Paltz, N.Y.-based assembly plant, which predicts it can assemble the modular vehicles at a rate of one per half hour.

 

If astounding fuel economy and überlow emissions weren't enough to sell you, the compressed-air vehicles have some other neat features that just might. The front passenger seat is designed on a swivel, so you can spin it around and sit facing the rear passengers, like you might in a limousine. The front dash has a computer screen instead of the standard meters. The screen displays the speed, engine revolutions and GPS, with custom programs for delivery people, traffic reports or connections to emergency systems.

 

Car junkies may have seen the prototypes earlier this year at the 2008 New York Auto Show, where a green mini version sat among three other contenders for the Automotive X Prize. Negre's technology is a frontrunner for the $10 million purse awarded to the first manufacturer to produce a 100-plus mpg car a person would actually want to purchase. If everything goes according to plan, the air car could be kicking up clean dust in a few months -- a breath of fresh air for the world's exhausted ecosystems.