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Thomas Heatherwick on his an air-purifying Tesla rival

British designer Thomas Heatherwick is designing Google’s new buildings in California and London.


LONDON – Thomas Heatherwick had never designed a car before being hired by Chinese auto firm IM Motors.

“We’re not car designers,” he told the company when it asked his London studio to dream up a new electric vehicle. “That’s why we want you to work on this,” the company replied.

The result was the Airo car that can theoretically strip the air of pollution as it drives along. Its designs were unveiled at the Shanghai Motor Show in April.

Heatherwick, who is behind the futuristic designs of Google’s new buildings in Mountain View and London, told CNBC at the Founders Forum tech event earlier this month that his team is currently working on engineering the vehicle. He expects it to go into full-scale production in 2023.

IM Motors is talking about making a million of these vehicles in China, Heatherwick said. IM Motors, an electric vehicle company founded by SAIC Motor, Alibaba and Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Group, did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.

The vehicle design includes double sliding doors and adjustable seats that can be turned into beds or swiveled around for a meeting, or a meal, with other passengers.

But some experts question whether the concept can ever become a reality.

Stan Boland, the CEO and co-founder of Five, a self-driving software company headquartered in the U.K., told CNBC that the car will only get built if enough money is thrown at it. “It’ll take $1 billion to $3 billion, but I see IM have Alibaba as an investor so perhaps this is accessible,” he said.

Peter Wells, a professor of business and sustainability at Cardiff University, told CNBC the Airo is a “show car intended to garner public attention” and “not a manufacturing reality.”

“The doors alone would be a massive challenge to put into production at reasonable cost, and even then the car would probably not meet side impact regulations,” said Wells, adding that the layout has been shown off before in concepts from Mercedes and others.

Heatherwick claims that the car could help to address the “global space shortage” but Wells isn’t convinced his approach is the right one. “The claim that it is somehow solving the housing crisis is just laughable,” he said. “The amount of space we give over to cars is already the core problem of many cities.”

Air purification

Tesla has equipped some of its vehicles with a HEPA filter that cleans the air as it comes into the cabin.

The air filtration system has a setting called Bioweapon Defense Mode and Tesla showed in 2016 that this can purify air outside the vehicle in extreme circumstances.

The company put one of its Model X vehicles into a bubble filled with high levels of pollution and turned on Bioweapon Defense Mode. “Not only did the vehicle system completely scrub the cabin air, but in the ensuing minutes, it began to vacuum the air outside the car as well,” Tesla said.

Wells from Cardiff University said that HEPA systems can’t remove pollution from cities on any practical level because there’s a scale issue.

“The volume of air that can be passed through the HEPA system is infinitesimal compared with the volume of polluted air available in the cities of the world today,” he said. “Therefore, the system will make no meaningful difference whatsoever.”

Nick Molden, founder and CEO of Emissions Analytics, which has built an online research and modeling tool for analyzing real-world emissions data from vehicles, told CNBC it’s possible for HEPA systems to “clean” the air outside a vehicle but the impact will depend on the volume of air that gets filtered.

“Modern diesel engines are often doing the same, in that the air going into the engine can contain more particles that the air coming out of the exhaust, due to a combination of incinerating the particles in the engine and filtering them in the exhaust,” said Molden.

While the Airo could help to clean the air in cities, it’s just one piece of the jigsaw, according to Heatherwick.

“Is this by itself solving the world’s climate crisis? No,” he said. “But it’s trying to use every project as an excuse to try to add something to this.”

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Thomas Heatherwick on his an air-purifying Tesla rival

2021-06-30 05:17:37

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