Tech

A top designer wants to build an air-purifying Tesla rival that you can sleep and eat in

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Key Points
  • British designer Thomas Heatherwick tells CNBC that IM Motors is planning to build around 1 million Airo vehicles.
  • The car, which is currently being engineered, is being designed to strip out pollution from the air as it drives along.
  • 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.  
British designer Thomas Heatherwick is designing Google's new buildings in California and London.
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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

The hope is that the Airo, which is being designed to have autonomous and driver-controlled modes, will use a small amount of battery power to purify the air as it drives along, although the mechanics are yet to be fully engineered.

"My hope is that that will be possible to engineer, so that it's using minimal energy," said Heatherwick, adding that some buses are already doing this.

The 51-year-old — who has also worked on London's Routemaster bus, the Little Island in New York, and London's failed Garden Bridge project — wants the vehicle to capture dirty particles from buses, trucks, cars and motorbikes as they go from A to B.

The idea is that it will have a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filtering system that actively cleans air as it passes through the car's under-carriage.

Heatherwick said it's "almost like flypaper" in that "if you move it through the air, you're going to be catching things."

The filtering system could be dialed up and down depending on how polluted an area is, Heatherwick said, adding that GPS technology could play a role here.

"With the global positioning, it can just kick in when some area's polluted and then when it's not a polluted area, stop working," he said.

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Heatherwick said that many of today's electric car drivers are "slightly smug" and that they drive around thinking they're not doing any harm to the world. "But are you doing any good?" he said. "Could you actually do something, however small, that adds up?"

Craig Morton, a lecturer at Loughborough University's School of Architecture, Building, and Civil Engineering, told CNBC that zero-emission vehicles don't exist as tire wear and braking systems release particulate matter that is continually thrown back up into the air.

"Technologies that can actually remove this material that is suspended in the air are important because once this particulate matter enters the respiratory system it can have substantial consequences for citizen health," said Morton.

He added: "While introducing such technologies to vehicles themselves holds some merit, one of the best things to do is to restrict the circulation of vehicles in areas that suffer from poor air quality through such policies as clean air zones. Such policies have other beneficial impacts such as encouraging active travel and reducing the supremacy of the car, which leads to more livable cities."

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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."

Customizable interior

The Airo, which is being designed by seven of Heatherwick's 185-strong workforce at Heatherwick Studio, is being envisioned as an extension of the home.

"There's a real space crisis going on around the world," said Heatherwick. "So many of us were thinking we lived somewhere that was OK, but when there was a Covid crisis, not many people have offices or studies separately in the home, and life moved to a very different mode."

Heatherwick said he wanted to design a car where people could work, program, game, eat, talk, and watch videos, much like they can on a business class seat in an airplane.

Electrochromic glass, which allows people in the car to see out without allowing those in the outside world to see in, could provide the necessary privacy, he said. 

"There are over a billion cars that exist in the world at this moment," said Heatherwick, adding that they're only used 10% of the time.

"In many cases, the stereo in the car is better than the stereo in someone's house. The seat in the car is actually more comfortable than a chair in someone's house. So you just think, well, what if we really made those work harder and considered it a room for partial use in your life."