Last year, a futuristic water taxi startup called SeaBubbles first revealed its bold vision to revolutionize urban travel: a network of autonomous, egg-shaped river shuttles equipped with hydrofoils and distributed to cities situated on major waterways around the globe. The idea seemed pretty far out at the time, but now the creators have shared the first images of their first full-scale prototype exclusively with The Verge. And as you can see, this thing literally flies above the surface of the water.
The vessels literally hover inches above the water thanks to a similar physics phenomenon that powers the record-setting Hydroptere sailboat in the air. Alain Thebault and Anders Bringdal, a sailor and windsurfer, respectively, started the company in early 2016 and have already raised €4 million ($4.3 million), with a goal of raising €20–30 million more to implement the full vision. Backers include the founder of drone maker Parrot, Partech Ventures, and the French government-backed BPI fund. The founders are aiming to have over a dozen vessels in the River Seine in Paris by this summer.
In an email, Bringdal explained that the boat seen in the video is their first full-scale prototype, which they use as a test platform to determine the best angle for the foils attached to the hull of the boat so as to precisely calibrate the center of gravity.
“We have camera angles to see foil performance,” Bringdal said. “It shows the cavitation limit on the foils and allows us to add fences to them [and] make sure they perform as they should.” He added, “[It’s] very important to find the best center of gravity on a longitudinal way so the boat is working as it should with a driver only and with four passengers in it.”
As you can see in the video, the prototype tilts dangerously to the side at one point, underscoring the importance of finding the appropriate center of gravity. SeaBubbles won’t have any luck finding passengers if its vessels are too risky, or passengers get seasick.
The prototype is about 14 feet long and a little over 7 feet wide. It operates on a 20 kilowatt-hour battery and a 2×10 kilowatt motor. The vessel lifts onto its foils at 5 knots, and can achieve a top speed of 14 knots (or about 16 mph). “We have already started to work on the fast version — 30 knots top speed,” Bringdal said. “This will be hitting the water in June [or] July some time.”
SeaBubbles’ electric-powered shuttles will be made of fiberglass and high-density foam, with linen interiors. The foils affixed to the hulls reduce the amount of drag, allowing the “bubbles” to travel as fast as 30 knots in water around a city. They will be able to carry up to five passengers and a driver, though the founders hope to eventually have a self-driving system. Specially designed docks would also serve as charging stations.
The vessels will be hailed by smartphone app like Uber, with whom the founders say they’ve spoken to about possibly partnering up. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is also a supporter, they say. They’ve also met with mayors from around the globe about bringing their waterborne vessels to a variety of cities.
SeaBubbles faces enormous financial and regulatory challenges. Bringdal and Thebault have to build a working prototype, woo investors, convince city officials to allow them to operate in their waterways, and build an app for passengers. Uber just built an app. SeaBubbles will have to create an entire transportation network from scratch.
But come on, how fun does this look?