x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Dr Peter, the bionic man

Feautre Dubai to Amman in two hours? Or Abu Dhabi to Dubai in 10 minutes? Not in an aircraft, but with unique traffic system, door-to-door in a car.

Dr Peter Maskus at the controls of his Acabion Streamliner. The vehicle is a reinvention of the car using elements culled from technologies as diverse as aeroplanes, Formula 1 and Superbikes.
Dr Peter Maskus at the controls of his Acabion Streamliner. The vehicle is a reinvention of the car using elements culled from technologies as diverse as aeroplanes, Formula 1 and Superbikes.

Dubai to Amman in two hours? Or Abu Dhabi to Dubai in 10 minutes? Not in an aircraft, but with unique traffic system, door-to-door in a car. "This is only going to happen if we convert cars to become real potential forms of future mobility and if we build them a new generation of automated tracks," claims Dr Peter Maskus, the designer and engineer behind the Acabion Streamliner and the Acabion Global Mobility strategy.

Dr Peter Maskus is a visionary. Even as a five-year-old he told his parents, who were both involved in the sciences, that one day he would design and own a car brand. He has studied engineering, traffic systems, bionics, biology and economics, and has worked most of his career as an engineer and consultant with General Motors, Ford, General Electric, NASA, Porsche, BMW and Mercedes, later becoming an international engineering consultant with the Kaizen Institute in Tokyo. However, after experiencing the wasteful design of even the highest performance cars he asked himself: "What kind of 'sports' or 'mobility' is it where the driver gets just 4.7 per cent of the 'muscles' [from the engine], and the rest is needed to carry the 1.62-tonne tracksuit and running shoes?".

"I'm a dreamer", he continues. "I saw a picture of high speed and what I tried to do was get the best possible solution to the picture I had in mind. I want to make what I believe is the perfect road vehicle", he adds. So, in 1986, he decided to reinvent the car by taking away its inefficient carriage roots and replacing them with aeronautic, superbike, Formula 1 and bionic elements. He has also invested ?35 million (Dh171 million) of his own money to develop a complete bionic future traffic system called Acabion Global Mobility.

It is a two-stage development, the first is the Acabion Streamliner vehicle (currently in Generation V and carrying a price tag of US$2 million, or Dh7.3 million, each), an aerodynamically shaped missile powered by a hybrid unit combining an 800-horsepower, turbocharged, 1.3-litre motorcycle engine and an electric motor (future generations will be purely electric). The second stage is a unique elevated track system, currently in Generation II.

Maskus recognises the challenge of designing such a revolutionary concept. "The Acabion is trying to break all types of paradigms. The amazing thing about the Acabion is that it has such power and such low resistance that it is capable of accelerating to well over 300mph (483kph)". But there is experience, method and possibly a touch of madness behind his thinking. Physicists and car designers alike understand well the limitations of the conventional car. There are five basic factors which decide its efficiency: air resistance caused by the shape of the "face" of the car, air resistance flowing around and behind the car, its weight, the amount of resistance created through the tyres and the type and power of the engine it uses. In conventional cars, it is a constant struggle for the engine to overcome the limitations of all the other factors.

Maskus says that today's cars consume at least 10 times more fuel than is necessary. He finds it amazing that, of all the factors which decide the efficiency of a car, it's the engine - the most unimportant one - which is being "optimised and fine-tuned" by major manufacturers. Fuel efficiency had been increased, but by just 10 per cent to 50 per cent in the last few decades. Maskus says of the car makers, "They leave completely untouched the 500 per cent to 25,000 per cent improvement potential, which easily can be achieved by optimising the other factors: air resistance, weight, and rolling resistance."

This is where the design of the Acabion Streamliner allows it to excel. This future "jet-like car" has a face, or 'projected area', of just 0.6m² instead of 2.4m² of today's cars. On top of that, the car's quality in terms of reducing turbulence has been massively improved by using hydrodynamic and aerodynamic fish or bird shapes instead of the usual square box designs. Maskus is intrigued by the efficiency seen in nature.

In fact, the name Acabion is a combination of "Acadia" (a National Park in the north-east of the USA) and "bionics". Acadia, he says, is "a picture of the innovator, with the water rolling against the rocks. It's really hard work, but in the end you change the coastline." When asked what inspires him, he replies, "watching seals along the Oregon Pacific coast or seagulls gliding over wild ocean waves in a storm. That inspires me. An admiral butterfly in the gentle wind, crossing the Alps without breaking a single blossom: that is fascination".

In Lucerne, the fifth generation of the Streamliner is progressing. It is a truly international project with aeronautic technologies coming from several international aeroplane manufacturers; motorbike parts from Japan; dragster engine and several other key parts from the USA; dragster boost control from Australia; racing engineer expertise from England; tyres from France; frame, hydraulic system, electric drive, instrumentation and tailor-made carbon and leather interior from Switzerland; and design influences from Italy.

The high-end version, the GTBO (Gran Turismo Bionic Optimised) "is the guiding star, nothing more", Maskus clarifies. "This is to get the eight-year-old boys behind us. They dream about Formula 1, Bugatti, Porsche." So that's the vehicle, but Maskus is as driven about how the 363kg Streamliner will move around modern environments at such high speeds. "A fully automated 'jet-like car system' will include elevated high-speed 'tracks' that protect biotopes, is 10 times cheaper than any highway or railway track, can fit into existing urban architectural constraints and yet allow for speeds of over 800kph with electric power from the track."

Since the vehicles are slim, the tracks would be too, which means smaller tunnel diameters, lightweight construction, new direct energy-saving routes, and individual future travel over distances never achieved by car. Additionally, future Streamliners could also use all types of current roads, from small country lanes to highways, allowing a step-by-step introduction of the new elevated tracks. By 2100, Maskus is planning for intercontinental vacuum tubes to be constructed, capable of transporting people at 10 times the speed of jet aircraft using magnetic levitation (Maglev) already in use on certain rail systems.

"You could drive to Dubai," Maskus muses, "or on autopilot, up on the new track, reading a newspaper, drinking a cup of tea and then dive into downtown Abu Dhabi just 12 minutes later; no timetable, no ticket control, no aggression, no stops, no transfers, no refuelling, and last but not least, no delays." It would also provide a massive input to the reduction of carbon dioxide and other global pollutants, with electric power coming from the solar power plants planned for the region.

At the moment, the Streamliner is still at research and development stage, with working models regularly stretching their legs at Engadin Airport outside St Moritz. But they won't be a common sight in the near future. As Maskus adds, "we see it as a sculpture. And that excludes any kind of a mass production." So what is the likelihood that one day you'll be able to do Abu Dhabi to Beirut in two and a half hours? "Impossible and completely nuts?" smiles Maskus. "That is exactly what was said about railroads in 1800 and about cars in 1900. Now we are 'writing' 2009. The third millennium is right here, and finds most of us sleeping."