x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Solar-powered bus faces testing outlook

Developers of the Superbus, a mass transport vehicle designed to run on the power of the sun, are seeking an industrial partner so they can bring their product to the market, starting with the UAE.

Dr Wubbo Ockels, the man behind the design of the Superbus, after testing the solar-powered bus in the Netherlends.
Dr Wubbo Ockels, the man behind the design of the Superbus, after testing the solar-powered bus in the Netherlends.
DELFT // At night, security guards patrol a workshop in the Netherlands where a multimillion-euro solar-powered bus has been parked since its unveiling in Dubai last month.

The Dutch developers of the "Superbus", a high-speed vehicle intended to run on sunshine, say they can reduce the prototype's ?30 million (Dh155.4m) price tag to ?1.5m to make it more commercially viable.

"Of course, ?1.5m would typically be three times more than a good bus today but the business plan works," says Dr Wubbo Ockels, a professor at the Delft University of Technology and the man behind the design of the Superbus.

"The next step is willingness of politicians to make the infrastructure and getting the financing to make sure we can build the vehicles."

Dr Ockels and the other developers are now seeking an industrial partner and have their eye on India as the place to make the bus.

Environmentalists, car makers and governments have seized on electric transport as a possible means to help curb the pollution believed to lead to climate change.

In Amsterdam, the government is pumping ?5m into charging stations it will make available for free to 1,000 people who buy electric cars.

But few electric vehicles have captured the imagination as has the Superbus. Dreamed up by Dr Ockels, the first Dutch astronaut, the prototype looks like a stretch limousine crossed with the Batmobile. It arrived in Dubai last month before pitching up at Masdar City, Abu Dhabi's huge planned carbon-neutral development.

Superbus developers spoke with Dubai transport officials this year about developing a service between Dubai and Abu Dhabi travelling at 250kph, for which the UAE would need to build two dedicated lanes. The bus was reported to be capable of completing the trip in 30 minutes.

"One thing is very clear: they like it," says Dr Ockels. "From the Emirates side, they like the vehicle, they like the concept. But . we need to make a formal delegation with the Dutch government."

Neither the UAE nor the Dutch government has committed to such a project, but Dr Ockels hopes a team could visit the UAE this summer with a view to setting up a permanent facility.

"It will be a win-win," he says. "I can't imagine an area where things go faster. And [if it happens] they will have an advantage of being the premier [location] of Superbus."

Dr Ockels led the design of the Superbus, developed in a former IT warehouse on the fringes of the Delft University of Technology with funding from sponsors including Saudi Basic Industries Corporation and the US company Dow Chemical.

Joris Melkert, an aerospace engineer, developed the vehicle with Dr Ockels, along with a former Formula One racing car designer.

The vehicle has been able to reach a speed of only 130kph because of limitations of its solar-powered battery. A stronger battery may be tested soon. Unfortunately, during a demonstration last month in Dubai, the Superbus ground to a halt when the driver pressed the throttle "too hard" to try to tackle a shallow incline.

But the team remains optimistic about the concept.

"It could not have taken place 20 years ago, when people were still arrogant and thought that coal and oil and nuclear power was still the way the go," says Dr Ockels, who frequently speaks out against nuclear energy, exhorting his audiences that "everyone is a passenger on Spaceship Earth".

The Superbus prototype, clad in shiny, lightweight carbon fibre, sports the sleek lines of a racing car - albeit one with 23 seats and secure spaces for wheelchairs.

"We want to make a competitor to the car and we know that a car is 80 per cent emotion," Dr Ockels says. "With Superbus we also want to hit the emotion."