x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Unlucky Superbus shows all the drive of a long-dead Roman

An electric-powered bus that can carry 23 passengers and travel at more than 250kph makes a stop in Dubai. And then stops.

Mohammed bin Sulayem at the wheel of the Superbus at the Dubai Autodrome this week. The bus can travel at more than 250kph. Courtesy photo
Mohammed bin Sulayem at the wheel of the Superbus at the Dubai Autodrome this week. The bus can travel at more than 250kph. Courtesy photo

Margaret Thatcher thought a man over the age of 26 who found himself on a bus should consider himself a failure.

So it was with some reluctance that I accepted an invitation to the Dubai Autodrome to see the Superbus "in action". This is no ordinary double-decker: it is a new electric-powered vehicle apparently capable of carrying 23 passengers at more than 250kph. It looks like a stretch limo, with doors that open vertically rather like a De Lorean, a car company that ended in failure.

Mohammed bin Sulayem, a former international rally driver, now a vice president of the Federation Internationale Automobile and certainly no kind of failure, was set to drive the bus. Beside him was Antonia Terzi, the chief designer of the vehicle, who once helped make F1 racing cars go faster.

"It's very quiet," said Mr bin Sulayem. "But the specification of the bus is incredible." He had arrived in a black Rolls-Royce Phantom, so he knows a bit about well-appointed vehicles. More than €30 million (Dh160.4m) has been spent on this prototype, which the developers hope will soon be whizzing passengers from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and back along a dedicated two-lane highway. Apparently they've done the maths and it's cheaper and more effective than a train.

Mr bin Sulayem and Ms Terzi got into the Superbus and drove off soundlessly. We were instructed to wait by the track to watch them speed past. While I know Baroness Thatcher would not approve, I rather wished we were onboard too. Taking passengers is, after all, one of the purposes of a bus, even if it does make you feel a failure.

"You don't want to be in there," somebody whispered. "There's no air-conditioning."

It is one of the developers' claims that the Superbus can run on solar power. It was now midday and the sun could not get any higher, or hotter. We waited, and waited. Five, 10, 15 minutes passed. Had they passed so quickly, so quietly, that we'd missed them?

I think I'd have got around the track quicker on a pogo stick.

Then we were called together for a briefing. There had been a slight technical hitch. Could everybody get into their cars and drive around the circuit to the Superbus.

"Are we racing?" I asked.

The PR looked at me with a certain amount of disdain. As I followed nine 4x4s around the circuit in my Ford Mustang, I was beginning to wonder just how environmentally friendly this bus would prove to be. I also thought I could beat the other drivers.

After a corner we saw the Superbus, parked up like a beached whale.

"The vehicle is not designed to go uphill," explained Ms Terzi. "It was designed for Holland where there are no hills. A fuse has blown. Yesterday I was so happy, we did lots of laps."

Ms Terzi is generally very enthusiastic, and not at all disheartened by a breakdown.

"I've spent five years on this project," she said. "I've put my heart into it. It's my baby."

Unfortunately the baby was comatose. Classicists will see the hubris in calling the vehicle "Superbus" in the first place. Tarquinius Superbus was the last king of Rome, until overthrown by a popular uprising. He was given the nickname Superbus meaning "proud" - he wouldn't have been seen dead on a bus - but died in exile.

For all its high-tech brakes, carbon-fibre wings and state-of-the-art batteries, this Superbus was not going anywhere. Mr bin Sulayem seemed undeterred.

"This project is very courageous," he said. "It will start in Europe. But maybe it will come here too. Here they always try new things."

I suggested that instead of public transport, perhaps it would make a good family car. Would he buy one himself?

"Maybe if I had a large family and a couple of wives," he said.

And possibly also if it had a V8 or even a V12 engine. Maybe both. That way not only would you get off the starting grid, you might even get to the chequered flag. We waited by the Superbus for a while, half expecting another two to come round the corner, but when nothing arrived, we all drove home in our cars.