This entry is the first in a series on new potential breakthrough technologies and policies.
A company in China, the Shenzhen Hashi Future Parking Equipment Company, has developed what they call, in a classic example of a foreign name sounding bizarre when translated into English, a “3D Fast Bus.” Measuring 14–20 feet high, the futuristic bus will glide above and around automobile traffic on two highway lanes, moving over cars and under overpasses at nearly 40 miles per hour. Roughly 1,200 passengers will fit in the cabin of each bus, atop what resembles a mobile tunnel.
The “straddling bus,” as many are calling it, would either run on tracks built into the road between the car lanes (much like a train), and have steel wheels, or it would rely on “auto-pilot technology” to follow two solid white lines painted outside two car lanes, and have rubber wheels. It would be powered either by solar panels on its roof or by electricity. Electricity from the grid could be delivered in two ways: either from a series of charging posts that would run along rails atop the bus, or by charging the bus at each stop and storing the electricity between stops using supercapacitors.
Sensors inside the bus’s “tunnel” would warn cars that are getting too close to the edge. But really, the experience would be no different than driving through an actual tunnel, except that the bus might “sneak up” on drivers from behind. Sensors at the back of the bus would warn vehicles that are too tall to drive beneath the bus, and overpass gates along the bus’s lanes would prevent tall vehicles from driving in those lanes.
Does it pass the laugh test?
At first blush, this idea seems ridiculous, not to mention impractical. What if a car below the bus doesn’t see an upcoming red light? What if the bus is turning and crashes into the cars beneath it? The video describing the bus system, now available on YouTube, doesn’t help matters with its poor—and frankly, hilarious—computerized English translation. But there are at least theoretical answers to all of the technical questions that I have come up with, and I’m left believing that the bus could safely coexist with other vehicles after proper testing.
Does it have that WOW factor?
I think the straddling bus pretty much defines the WOW factor. Would anyone who sees a straddling bus for the first time not stop and stare? In fact, the most dangerous part of introducing the bus might be drivers who become so out-of-sorts driving alongside and under the bus for the first time that they act irrationally (or at least nervously). As much as the bus and its developers can plan for every driving contingency, they can’t plan for a driver who simply freaks out when he suddenly finds himself in a moving tunnel.
What does it bring to the table?
Scale and Savings.
The straddling bus would ideally combine the advantages of a light-rail or subway system—large carrying capacity and lack of competition for road space with automobiles, for example—with the lower costs and quicker implementation of bus rapid transit (BRT). The Shenzhen Hashi Future Parking Equipment Company claims that each straddling bus could replace 40 conventional buses—saving 860 tons of fuel each year—and reduce traffic on major roads by some 25–30 percent. The technology probably makes the most sense for regional transit, running along highways where it can find enough passengers, and depositing passengers in city centers.
How close is it to commercialization?
Closer than you might think.
It would be easy to dismiss the straddling bus as just an egghead’s daydream, but Beijing’s Mentougou district has already given the technology preliminary approval and has formed plans to build 115 miles of tracks for the first pilot study, with construction to start at the end of the year. Other Chinese cities have applied for funding for straddling bus systems.
How scalable is it?
With rural-to-urban migration continuing with no end in sight, there will be a tremendous need to develop efficient and cheap public transit systems, especially in developing countries. With the estimated capital investment for the straddling bus being as little as one-tenth that of a subway system, there will be endless opportunities for the straddling bus if it proves to be safe and effective.
What is the biggest obstacle to success?
This idea of the straddling bus is so “out there” that some people will likely never be convinced that it is safe or reliable (if it indeed is), even after it has been tested. Policymakers and the general public may be scared off by an innovation that, at least at first glance, radically changes the commuter driving experience. Even if every technical and political hurdle is cleared, an initial spate of accidents caused by panicked drivers may sink the straddling bus’s chances.
The final word(s):
Count me in.
There are many reasons to be skeptical of the straddling bus, but I choose to look past all of them and eagerly await the day when James Bond, Jason Bourne, or John McClane lies in wait on the underside of a straddling bus to pounce on an unsuspecting villain.