Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A cheap, nimble, inflatable(!) car

Take this car to the beach. It floats.

In the continuing evolution of the automobile, you'll keep hearing about air cars.

On that theme, add the idea of an inflatable car to the odd concept of a compressed air-powered car (currently licensed by India's Tata Motors; a report on that car can be found in the December 2007 archives in this blog).

The inflatable vehicle is the brainchild of a bunch of innovative San Francisco engineers at XP Vehicles. Their sparse website is

And is this thing perfect for Hawai'i? Light, long-range, low environmental impact, and of course an inflatable car is unlikely to become a rust bucket.

In this case, the proposed vehicle (if it gets developed, actually driving one will be a year or two, or maybe three, down the road) is an electric car. Initial marketing is aimed at Asia, not the U.S., and currently it seems that the firm does not plan to seek federal government safety approvals.

There aren't a lot of real good images of what this car would look like. There reportedly would be several models. But the XP folks have several really interesting design and marketing ideas.

One of them is a price for a car that drives at freeway speeds that's between $3,000 and $10,000, depending on the model.

Another is a car that's shipped in two cardboard boxes. You put it together with a savvy friend in a couple of hours.

You could order it direct, or through a local dealer.

Getting it street legal is a local issue. Says the company: “Your local dealer is responsible for assembling and certifying the vehicle for your region. If you order a flat-pack vehicle that you assemble, then you are responsible for local certifications.”

It would be powered by batteries, a fuel cell or a combination. It's light in weight and the company on its website suggests, intriguingly, that the electric car could have a 2,500-mile range.

There are suggestions you could drive your inflatable car off a small cliff without injury, that it would float in a flood, and so forth. These apparently are accidental benefits of the design.

“The nature of the inflatable construction, on those that use it, offers secondary advantages which are not part of the intended use but which could possibly provide additional safety in such circumstances,” the company website says.

The car will have all the regular features inside a normal car, with storage space, a place to dock your iPod and GPS, sport seats and wheels, xenon or LED headlights, a “flotation package,” and a completely interchangeable body. Tired of the red model? Switch to sky blue. No problem.

Will anyone ever actually be able to buy one of these? That's not clear. But it's another intriguing idea that turns standard auto design on its ear.

The XP Team has launched the design in part to qualify for the automotive X Prize (see This is a $10 million prize for a clean, efficient, functional car that will meet the needs of the consumer.

In an announcement Jan. 10, 2008, X Prize said: “The Automotive X PRIZE, which was created to help break the world’s addiction to oil and stem the effects of climate change, is an independent and technology-neutral competition, open to teams from around the world who can design, build and bring to market 100 MPG equivalent vehicles that people want to buy, and that meet market needs for price, size, capability, safety and performance.”

More than 50 teams have already indicated they plan to enter. Those that qualify will build their cars and participate in a cross-country race in 2009 to 2010 to prove their concepts.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate