If You Were Starting Up a Car Company, Would You Put Your Factory in Hawaii?

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
if you were starting up a car company would you put your factory in hawaii

Though I don’t watch broadcast or cable television much anymore, I like the idea of the ABC’s Shark Tank. Actually, when I still had cable, I watched the original Canadian version of the show, Dragon’s Den, since Windsor, Ontario’s CBC affiliate station is generally part of Detroit area cable bundling. As a tinkerer, inventor and small business owner, the idea of a show premised on pitching your business idea to possible angels is appealing to me. However, while all of the “sharks” undoubtedly have been more successful entrepreneurs than I have been, sometimes they make investments that just don’t make sense to me.

On last Friday’s show, one of the potential investors, Robert Herjavec, pledged $5 million in funding to a startup named Zero Pollution Motors to start building cars propelled by compressed air. ZPM says that they will start building the cars in Hawaii sometime later this year.

This video is only available to those in the U.S.

The project is apparently a joint venture involving Zero Pollution Motors, Motor Development International (a French company headquartered in Luxembourg that’s been working on a compressed air car for two decades), and India’s Tata Motors, which has a licensing deal with MDI. Singer Pat Boone appears to be an investor in ZPM. From the video it looks like they will be producing some form of MDI’s AirPod vehicle, which looks like a cross between GM’s Segway-on-steroids EN-V city pods, an Isetta microcar with its front opening door, and a DeltaWing racer. At first, because of the narrow front end, I thought it was a Reliant Robin type three wheeler – not the most stable configuration – but it actually does have two very small front wheels, though I’m not convinced how stable it will be when doing an emergency swerve. That, though, isn’t my main concern about the enterprise.

To begin with, I’m a bit put off by the reportage saying the cars are powered by compressed air. The compressed air is just storing energy, it’s not a fuel. The cars are powered by whatever is generating the electricity needed to run the compressors that fill the AirPod’s tanks. If you don’t have a compressor at home, ZPM says that you could fill up the tanks using the coin-operated air compressors you find at many filling stations. It would take about five minutes to fill up and cost you about $2.00 in quarters. The vehicles are claimed to have a range of up to 80 miles with a top speed of 50 mph. Presumably their competition would be so-called Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, BEVs with a top speed of less than 45 mph, suitable for downtown areas and gated communities. The 617 lb vehicles will have a price of $10,000.

TTAC readers who have been following my coverage of Elio Motors know I’m attracted to the romance of starting up a new car company, so I don’t want to rain on ZPM’s parade. I’m also not a compressed air skeptic. The AirPod might be a practical city vehicle. I am, however, skeptical of Zero Pollution Motors.

Putting aside the terrible semantics of saying the cars are powered by compressed air, I’m baffled that a serious investor would fund a manufacturing startup in one of the most expensive places in the world to make anything: Hawaii.

That island state will be the first of ZPM’s proposed “turnkey micro production factories” building the pods to sell directly to customers. ZPM claims their distributed manufacturing schema represents a “drastic decrease in costs and logistic problems associated with the conventional assembly process” that would not just be cleaner than conventional assembly plants, it would have a “significant beneficial impact” on the environment.

Hawaii was chosen as a test location because of Honolulu’s congested traffic and lack of gasoline refineries. Gasoline is relatively expensive in Hawaii because it has to be brought in by tanker. However, gasoline isn’t the only thing that’s expensive in Hawaii because of it’s location in the middle of the Pacific. Everything needs to be imported to Hawaii, not just gasoline. Hawaii could be the most expensive state in the union in which to start up a manufacturing concern. That’s probably why Hawaii ranks 50th in terms of states’ dependency on manufacturing. ZPM would have to ship all of their tooling there just to start up. As far as I know, there are no automotive suppliers in Hawaii, so everything needed to build the vehicles, down to nuts and bolts, would have to be brought in by boat. It would probably be cheaper, even with Manhattan real estate prices, to build ZPM’s air car in New York City – and the market there for city cars is undoubtedly a tad larger than Honolulu.

The auto industry is a very big crap shoot. To make your number usually requires investments in the 10 figure range. It’s estimated big car companies spend at least a billion dollars to develop a new model. With that perspective, Herjavec ( who is a bit of a car guy, going gentleman racing, and owning LaFerrari VIN 01) isn’t risking much with his five mil, but my guess is it will be a long while before automobiles powered by any source make up a greater part of Hawaii’s GDP than the cannabis grown there.

Photo: MDI

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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4 of 65 comments
  • Wstarvingteacher Wstarvingteacher on May 13, 2015

    I'm not sure that I think there is much valid in this proposition but there are a couple things that might make it feasible. Plenty of sun in Hi. A single battery powered compressor with a rooftop solar panel could extend the range like crazy. Recharge in the parking lot at work. Can do it underway also (but not very well) or with a 250cc diesel with a generator. For Hawaii this could work great as a hybrid but as a straight pneumatic powered vehicle I don't think so. Tata is a lot bigger and they don't seem to be making it work.

    • Jhefner Jhefner on May 13, 2015

      Wind power is another alternate energy source; lots of ocean breezes. An electric car would certainly make sense their, and range anixety is much less an issue.

  • Ron B. Ron B. on May 14, 2015

    "shark Tank" ?? it's an Americanised version of the English "Dragons Den" where hopeful would be entrepreneurs try and convince a panel of very wealthy people that their musical toilet roll holder is worthy of the $100,000 investment they seek. So some surfer has come up with a salted mine to try and get the 'merican versions of the English billionaires to part with some cash.In my fevered mind, I can see the greens now bowing down at the alter of compressed air (bel air?) claiming all sorts of anti climate change benefits while screeching their plaintiff calls for funding. Maybe these clever types (you have to be clever to get funding to build mobility scooters powered by air) are really trying to get funds to buy carbon credits which they will sell to the Californian government at a tidy profit. Afterall Carbvon credits are another means of making money out of air...

  • Wheatridger Correct me if I'm wrong, but has the widescreen digital dash usurped the space formerly occupied in every other car by an HVAC vent? I see one prominent vent well right of center, where there should be two. I rely on twin driver's side vents to warm my hands on cold mornings, and I wouldn't give that up for more screen area.
  • Dawn Maple They haven't even fixed the airbag issues and recalls completely, so why waste more time and money on another "safety feature" that removes choices from the driver? We would be safer getting in a car driven by Helen Keller. Oh wait with driver assist, all she has to do is find her car and turn it on.
  • Lorenzo I'm out. I'd never find it in the dark.
  • VoGhost Minivans don't sell well, and the market has been declining. And while the entire 'range anxiety' myth is mostly a big oil propaganda designed to scare the weak minded, minivans are often how families travel to grandma's house, so that will be a concern, unless VW can gain access to the Supercharger network. I could see 50K units at peak, declining to 25K/year after a couple of years, unless VW can price competitively with Tesla.
  • VoGhost Glad you're healthy, Tim