High-speed Superbus debuts in Dubai

A prototype which could slash journey times between Abu Dhabi and Dubai has gone on display at the region's largest public transport exhibition.

Wubbo Ockels and Antonia Terzi, showing off the Superbus in Dubai, believe it can reach its theoretical cruising speed of 250kph. Jaime Puebla for The National
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DUBAI // The high-speed bus that could slash journey times between Abu Dhabi and Dubai to 30 minutes went on show yesterday - and its creator said he hoped the UAE would be the first country to introduce the vehicle.
Professor Wubbo Ockels, Holland's first astronaut, said: "Of course we hope that the Netherlands is going to be the first country, but we realise that, in the Netherlands, things don't go as fast as here, so we hope here will be the first."
The Superbus, which is being developed at the Delft University of Technology in Holland, is on show in Dubai at the UITP Mobility and City Transport Expo - the first time it has been seen outside Europe.
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The streamlined midnight-blue vehicle has eight gull-wing doors on each side, can hold 23 passengers plus a driver and was designed to travel on both normal roads and a special high-speed track.
Prof Ockels said his team was about to hold talks about the project with UAE transport officials. They hope to arrange a demonstration run for Dubai's Roads and Transport Authority after the expo ends.
The fully functioning prototype has already reached 140kph in tests, and Prof Ockels said he would be surprised if the electric vehicle had not touched its theoretical cruising speed of 250kph by October.
The team has brought the environmentally friendly Superbus to the UAE because of the interest shown in sustainable transport by the authorities here.
"We always had an interest in the Abu Dhabi-Dubai route. I was here 16 or 18 years ago and have followed the development, and I think here there is an ambition to grow into a sustainable world and a need to introduce proper public transport," Prof Ockels said.
"And the fact that you have quite substantial economic support, that combination is a good opportunity for us.
"During my space flight [on the space shuttle Challenger in 1985], I realised that the Earth is just a big spaceship where the hull is the thin layer of the atmosphere which is protecting us against the dangers of space, because in space you can't live.
"So that gave me the urge to work on sustainability."
The idea for the Superbus was born during a rather more prosaic journey - a commute between the two towns in Holland where he worked as a university professor.
"Delft and Groningen are 200km apart," Prof Ockels said. "On the days I travelled between them it took me fours hours in the morning by train and five hours to go back in the evening. So I had nine hours for 200km and I said, 'this is not right'.
"And then I thought, as a customer, what's the ideal public transport? It needs to be fast but not like a fast train, because I don't live near a station.
"So fast, but I want it to be flexible and use normal roads because, with normal roads, you can access the place where you want to be.
"So I had to think of a combination of high speed and flexibility - and that's a high-speed bus. Then I didn't want it to pollute, so it had to be electrical."
He said he hoped that within five years the first Superbus system would be up and running, adding: "Within 10 years I'd hope we would have a few hundred vehicles."
The Superbus was designed by Italian Antonia Terzi, an ex-Formula One aerodynamicist with the Ferrari and Williams teams. The vehicle incorporates a number of technologies borrowed from Formula One.
She said: "Firstly there's the aerodynamics. Then there's the chassis design and manufacture; it's all in carbon epoxy.
"We have carbon-ceramic brakes, like in Formula One. We have carbon-magnesium wheel rims - only 16kg for each wheel rim, nothing when you consider the vehicle weighs 10 tonnes."
Ms Terzi admitted she was not initially keen to move from the glamour of Formula One to designing a bus.
"Wubbo asked me and I was like, I don't want to design a bus, no, no, no - I come from Formula One!
"But I really liked the concept and the fact that there was nothing - normally every year you start with a baseline for a vehicle and then you develop it, but here there was no baseline.
"It was like a white piece of paper. It was such a wonderful challenge."
The Superbus will remain on show at the expo at the Dubai International Exhibition and Convention Centre until April 14.