IT LOOKS rather like a futuristic stretch limousine, but its actual function is rather more populist: the Superbus is a novel public-transport system being developed in the Netherlands by the Delft University of Technology. It is an electric bus designed to be able to switch seamlessly between ordinary roads and dedicated “supertracks”, on which it can reach speeds of 250kph (155mph). It could thus present an alternative to much more expensive magnetic-levitation trains. The Superbus would be driven in the usual way on roads and an autopilot would be engaged when it reached a supertrack.
Though it is as wide and long as a standard city bus, the Superbus is only 1.7 metres high, or roughly the same height as a sports-utility vehicle. Joris Melkert, the project's manager, explains that the designers managed to keep the Superbus this small by doing away with the central aisle usually found in today's buses, a vestigial design feature that allows passengers to stand upright, but also gives conventional buses the aerodynamic profile of a brick.
The low-riding Superbus, in contrast, has a separate door for each of its 30-odd seats. The low ceiling and the use of lightweight materials make for a far more streamlined vehicle, which in turn requires only a modest electric motor: though engineers have not yet decided whether the Superbus will be powered by fuel cells or batteries, they estimate that it will be able to accelerate from rest to 100kph in a leisurely 36 seconds.
The individual doors also allow for rapid loading and unloading of passengers, which will need to be fast if the Superbus is to live up to its promised door-to-door mission: instead of making predetermined stops, the vehicle will pick up and drop off passengers based on their text-messaged requests. This kind of flexibility is a central tenet of the project; the estimated three-year lifespan of a Superbus (as opposed to thirteen years for a standard European bus) will also allow the latest technologies to be phased in quickly as they become available.
To start with, that might include satellite-based tracking to keep the Superbus on course, sensors to scan the road for obstacles up to 300 metres ahead and a smart suspension system that remembers the rough spots in the road. The special supertracks, too, will form a technological testing ground, storing solar energy in the summer and using it in the winter to heat up the lanes and prevent them from freezing and cracking.
Conveniently enough, much of the technology comes from Delft University itself, which houses one of the world's largest aerospace-engineering departments. (The headquarters of the European Space Agency are located in nearby Noordwijk.) The university's industrial-design department has cooked up the Batmobile-like blueprint for the prototype; the project's chief designer, Antonia Terzi, previously worked on Formula 1 cars for Ferrari and Williams-BMW.
Some detractors have suggested that making so many stops would erode the Superbus's speed advantage, and others question whether a new cog in the Netherlands' already-intricate transport infrastructure is even needed. Furthermore, the Superbus does not yet exist, whereas maglev trains are already operating successfully in Shanghai.
The future of the project is uncertain. Its intended route, a new transport link connecting Amsterdam with the northern city of Groningen, was recently scrapped by the Dutch government (although the Superbus was deemed the most feasible of all the options considered, which also included a maglev train). In spite of the setback, the project has since received an extra €7m ($9m) in government funding, plus €1m from Connexxion, a local bus company. The Superbus team's latest plan is to unveil a fully functional prototype at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. With its combination of low emissions, high speed and snazzy design, this might prove to be a bus that is worth waiting for.
[reprinted in full from The Economist, Sep 21st 2006]