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A Superbus for the 21st century

By Dean Irvine for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- It looks more like the Batmobile rather than a long-distance coach, so perhaps it is fitting that it is called the Superbus. Offering the speed of an inter-city train with the flexibility of a bus, its Dutch inventors hope that it will provide a vital part in a sustainable future of public transportation and, who knows, it just might make traveling by bus cool.

"With speeds of up to 155 mph and offering point-to-point travel, this is a vision of environmentally-friendly public transportation of the future," Professor Wubbo Ockels of Delft University of Technology told CNN.

Ockels was the first Dutch citizen in space and now chairs the department of Aerospace for Sustainable Engineering and Technology (ASSET) at Delft University in the Netherlands.

He first came up with the revolutionary reworking of the bus after suffering from a common terrestrial problem - a particularly congested commute to work.

"I traveled from Gronigen to Delft and it took me four hours there and five hours back. It made me realize that after all the years I had lived in Gronigen the time it took to get anywhere had just been getting longer. Something had to change," he told CNN.

And so the Superbus has been designed rescue us from congestion. It's the same length as a conventional bus, but that is where the similarities end. It is only one meter 60 centimeters high to maximize aerodynamics and electrically powered. It is also intended to run on roads and dedicated high-speed tracks at over 150 mph.

With eight doors on each side, passengers would order a seat on the bus via their mobile phones and be able to board rapidly from a pick-up point no more than a mile from where they live.

As a passenger experience, the Delft University team aim to make it as far removed from the cramped and bumpy ride of today's long-distance buses, where the only entertainment is a film shown on a flickering TV screen or the magazine read by the sitting person next to you.

"Public transport shouldn't interrupt your life. Passengers will be welcomed by name, can enter the bus via an individual door and will find all the entertainment and connectivity that would find on an airplane," said Ockels.

To avoid breaking Dutch speed limits the Superbus would cruise along special high-speed tracks. Compared to the cost of laying train or mag-lev rails, building an infrastructure of special tracks for the Superbus to drive on would be appreciably cheaper. Running next to existing highways, they would also have less of an impact on the landscape.

The tracks themselves would also incorporate technology that has an eye on sustainability and increased performance. Utilizing geothermal heating, they would store heat in the summer and release it during the winter to avoid icing up.

But it is the Superbus itself, rather then the infrastructure that is the focus for innovation.

Ockels likens the driver to the pilot of a plane, manually driving the Superbus on normal roadways, they would be assisted by computer systems at medium speeds, while an autopilot would take control when on the high-speed tracks.

For a smooth drive, proactive suspension systems are being developed that can adapt to the roughness of the road and use advanced radar to scan hundreds of meters ahead for any obstacles or accidents.

"We've deliberately tried to keep the majority of the intelligence and technology within the vehicle and made the infrastructure, such as the high-speed tracks more benign," said Ockels.

The average lifespan of the Superbus is three years, which means that it can adapt to rapid technological innovations.

While it combines the high-speed service of trains with the flexibility of a normal bus, the biggest novelty of the project is the way it combines so many elements of innovation.

"We know how to make light weight materials, how to design and make beautiful vehicles, how to use IT and SMS technology, so what we're trying to do is bring them all together."

Former BMW-Williams Formula 1 designer Dr. Antonia Terzi has been employed to design the Superbus, so it's no wonder it looks more like a futuristic sports limousine rather than a brick with wheels.

"It's a new concept and we've gone to the extreme in devising its aerodynamics and using advanced technology from the aerospace industry to create an energy efficient vehicle," Ockels told CNN.

Ockels and his team have employed computational fluid dynamics, more readily used in spacecraft design, and enlisted a supercomputer at the university, one of the world's most powerful, to calculate its optimum design features.

Waiting at dreary bus depots and negotiating tiresome online ticket purchase forms would be a thing of the past - a simple SMS message would be enough to book and pay for a seat.

After a passenger orders a Superbus via SMS, a return message would be sent with details of the time and pick up point, which shouldn't be more than a mile --walking or cycling distance -from the passenger's house.

Avoiding a circuitous route and ensuring traveling times were swift, it is estimated that there would be no more than four or five pick-ups for each journey, which Ockels believes would be "no longer than waiting at traffic lights."

The Superbus development project has already secured $11 million in funding, much of it from European transportation group Connexxion, and a demonstration model is currently being built to be unveiled at the start of the Beijing Olympics next year. With interest already from cities in the USA and Saudi Arabia, the Superbus may be making an appearance in the not too distance future.

"What we're trying to do is provide the tools for people to make their future better," said Ockels.


With Formula 1 good looks, the Superbus could make traveling by bus sexy as well as environmentally friendly.


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