Will ‘Sea Bubbles’ Turn the Rivers of France Into an Alternative to Their Clogged Roads?

By: | June 7th, 2016

These little hydroplaning cabs with flippers, called Sea Bubbles, are about to be tested on the Seine in Paris this summer. If all goes well with the debut, the plan is for 3,000 to 5,000 of them to traverse the rivers of France by 2018.

They look like a giant sea turtle, with a round body and four curved “flippers” underneath that act like the wings of an airplane, creating an aerodynamic lift above the water, which reduces drag. The vehicle is powered by electric propulsion via two small motors and rechargeable batteries, and emits zero CO2, no noise, and leaves no wake.

The creator’s main claim to fame is in the area of sailboat racing. In 1994, Alain Thebault co-designed the Hydroptere, a sailing vessel that exceeded 50 knots thanks to its hydrofoil technology. This is the idea behind the Sea Bubbles’ hydroplaning design that has it floating about two feet above the water, with only its “marine wings” breaking the surface.

Thebault says the idea was born when his daughters encouraged him to “invent a zero emission cab” to alleviate the air pollution in big cities, such as London, Paris, New York, and Los Angeles. Since many large cities have waterways, and Thebault feels at home in a boat, the most likely way to introduce a new form of transportation would be to create a watercraft that could ease some of the existing street traffic.

He envisions the “vehicles” being driven by a professional driver initially but, at a cost of about $32,000 USD, they can be purchased by individuals as well. In fact, the cabs can even be made autonomous once driverless technology becomes more readily accepted by the public.

Thebault’s backstory does not conjure images of a successful inventor. In fact, algorithms would likely peg him as a probable failure in business. He was a high school dropout who preferred windsurfing to the boring rote lessons. He was separated at an early age from his ailing mother and spent hours watching birds and dreaming of being able to fly himself. But, he was good at math and had a vivid imagination. That creativity, along with the help of engineers, would allow him, as an adult, to construct unusual designs using hydrofoils to break world records for sailing speed.

Thebault has received lots of interest in the Sea Bubbles concept with at least 100 individuals wanting to purchase their own. Numerous major investors have come forth wanting to get in on the ground level, and Thebault has had meetings with executives from Tesla, BMW, Renault, Google, and Uber. And, though Paris will be the site of the first test run, a number of other cities, such as London and San Francisco, have expressed interest in setting up fleets, too.

But, Thebault’s vision is that the little bubbles will eventually morph into public ride-sharing similar to bike share programs. After all, this time, he’s not out to break any speed records. His first priority is to fulfill the mandate of his daughters. I’m fairly certain they’d call it a success.

Carol Mosley is a social ecologist, freelance writer, human rights activist, mini-farmer, and educator.

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