Zero Pollution Motors and its compressed air car lose investor in classic tale for the auto industry

AIRPod unveiled on Shark TankThings were looking good for startup automaker Zero Pollution Motors and its compressed-air powered car, AIRPod. Legendary pop music star Pat Boone and entrepreneur Ethan Tucker were able to impress investor Robert Herjavec enough on the ABC hit series “Shark Tank” to invest $5 million for a 50% share. Herjavec sweetened the deal by committing to get involved with creating an effective sales network in the U.S. Zero Pollution Motors needed the $5 million to set up an assembly plant in Hawaii to produce the city car capable of traveling up to 50 mph with an 80 mile range. They said it takes four minutes to fill up the air tank, and would only cost car buyers $10,000 for driving the cleanest car on U.S. roads.

That story has changed. On Friday, the company posted this on its Facebook page: “Robert (Herjavec) backed out of the deal made last year after waiting 9 months. Now we are free to have other investors! Are you in?”

That episode of “Shark Tank” first aired in May 2015 and then was repeated on Friday evening. It seemed to be originally filmed in late 2014 or early 2015. So far, there haven’t been any media comments from Herjavec or the automaker beyond the Facebook posting.

This is a classic tale of what tends to happen in advanced vehicle technologies, especially by startup companies trying to make it as a vehicle manufacturer. Investors do pull away if they become concerned about what’s happening internally with management; they can also lose confidence visiting the production facility and looking at the financials. It’s an incredibly capital intensive business to make it in, and skilled, experienced personnel is a must.

Here are a few of my thoughts on what stands out with the Zero Pollution Motors experience:

  • The potential of the car, and the presentation made on “Shark Tank,” were enough to impress Herjavec, who’s made some very sizable investments in new technologies. Herjavec has a lot of interest in cars; two years ago, he led Connected Car Expo’s FASTPITCH competition right before the start of the LA Auto Show. The fact that he walked away indicates there are some serious internal issues for the company and its owners to deal with.
  • The company is making what I consider to be a big mistake: competing with other alternative technologies to take out Big Oil. Ethan Tucker made comments about compressed-air car AIRPod being superior to electric vehicles on “Shark Tank,” such as not needing the expensive lithium ion battery. The company’s Facebook page makes statements about the need to find freedom from fossil fuel addiction, the power of Big Oil, and the threat of environmental devastation. The real issue is that the company wants to brag that it has the best-of-the-best in alternative technologies. That’s been debated for years, with the latest hotspot coming from the electric vehicle vs. hydrogen fuel cell vehicle debate. The real challenge is getting consumers and fleets to overcome their concerns about owning a new technology, so that they will make that investment and spread the good word to their peers.
  • Compressed-air cars are getting a lot of interest in global markets. Luxembourg-based Motor Development International (MDI), and its founder Guy Negre, have been behind AIRPod from its origination. MDI has been working with Tata Motors to build the car through Zero Pollution Motors in Hawaii, and then ship some of them back for sale in India.
  • If you view the image in this article and on the website and Facebook page, you’ll see another significant development in transportation: supporting urban mobility. It’s a small, lightweight car with limited size and range. It’s targeted at consumers concerned about overdeveloped cities and air pollution. There’s hope that young consumers (Millennials) will embrace mobility options as they put off owning a car and move into cities.
  • Advanced vehicle technologies inspire a lot of enthusiasm and interest out there, which is well represented by celebrity investor Pat Boone. He thinks it’s an answer for crowded cities with air pollution. One of the big challenges that I’ve noticed is getting them to stay interested and committed to supporting the technology. I’ve had many conversations with people fascinated with the potential, thinking about getting involved with the business or buying one of the cars. Most of them become interested in something else and forget about clean vehicles.
  • What about the infrastructure? Compressors will need to be available at fueling stations. That will take a lot of investment and partnerships with fuel station owners.
  • One of the big stumbling blocks for the company is getting through the NHTSA and EPA testing procedures. It’s been accepted in Europe but still has to clear with the federal agencies, which is not easy to do.
  • Compressed air equipment is currently being used in various applications. Caterpillar and equipment rental companies like United Rentals have been using compressed air systems for years.

The odds are stacked against the round and futuristic AIRPod making it to roads, and compressed air-powered vehicles as a passenger vehicle. It’s a fascinating technology where the tanks with compressed air are heated and the air is sent into cylinders of a piston engine. The fueling will be fast and cheap, and the emissions might be as clean as the water coming out of fuel cell cars. The AIRPod may drop down to costing only $3,700 to build before it sells for $10,000. I hope AIRPod makes it, but it’s been sad to watch several companies with admirable technologies having to close their shutters.


“Pump” documentary explores potential of alternative fuels and recovery from oil addiction

Pump movie fuel station“What’s the gas station of the future going to look like? It’s going to look like a lot different than today’s,” says Jim Lane, editor and publisher of Biofuels Digest. “What’s going to break the monopoly at the pump is entrepreneurs who build alternative distribution.”

Lane makes this statement in “Pump,” a documentary opening in theaters next month. This documentary tells the story of America’s addiction to oil, from its corporate conspiracy beginnings to its current monopoly today, and explains clearly and simply how it can end and make available choices at the pump. Fuel can become cheaper, cleaner, and American made – and in the process, create more jobs for a stronger, healthier economy.

The documentary is directed by Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell, and narrated by Jason Bateman; it opens in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 19, 2014. Josh Tickell directed the Sundance award-winner, “Fuel,” and his spouse Rebecca Harrell Tickell co-directed two other documentaries with Josh, “Freedom” and “The Big Fix.” Years ago, Josh was known for his Veggie Van Voyage, where he drove 25,000 miles over two years in his vegetable oil biodiesel van to educate Americans on the benefits of the alternative fuel.

Like their other documentaries, “Pump” is featuring a few famous experts on the subject – one of them being Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. “It’s possible to create compelling, affordable electric cars,” Musk says in the movie. “There’s been a monopoly on the fuel system in this country,” says John Hofmeister, former president of Shell Oil Co. and author of Why We Hate the Oil Companies: Straight Talk from an Energy Insider. Hofmeister is founder of a nonprofit organization, Citizens for Affordable Energy.

“We have the ability to stop using oil right now,” David Blume, author of Alcohol Can Be a Gas. “All cars run equally well on methanol, ethanol, or gasoline.” As seen in the photo image from the documentary, a gas station of the future may offer gasoline, methanol, ethanol, biodiesel, and natural gas. Propel, a company specializing in ethanol and biodiesel at fuel stations, is featured in “Pump.”

AltCar Expo will present a panel discussion on the documentary on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014 at 3:00 pm, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.  Participating panelists include David Blume, founder and CEO of Blume Distillation and author of Alcohol Can Be a Gas; John Brackett, auto engineer and enthusiast; and Eyal Aronoff, co-founder, Freedom Foundation.