When the city of Paris banned cars from a two-mile stretch along the right bank of the River Seine–formerly one of the busiest streets in the city–some drivers, predictably, complained. But commuters will soon be able to try an alternative: Silent electric taxi boats will begin pilot tests on the river in June.
The boats, called SeaBubbles, run on electric batteries that recharge when they plug into docks; the docks generate power from solar panels and the current in the water. The exteriors will be made from fiberglass and high-density foam, and linen will line the interiors.
In making the boats, the French startup was inspired to make use of underutilized space. While the river was once the center of Parisian transportation, the few boats on it now are mostly used by tourists.
“It’s free infrastructure, because it’s already existing,” SeaBubbles founder and vice president Alain Thébault tells Co.Exist. “Humans have built large metropolises on rivers and lakes or bays, whose banks are unfortunately filled with cars. There are plenty of spaces usable on the water.”
Thébault, a sailor, previously helped develop an experimental hydrofoil called the Hydroptère–a boat that skims, half-flying, along the surface of the water–and broke world sailing records with the design. He was inspired to work on SeaBubbles after his daughters suggested that a similar design might help solve transportation problems in overcrowded, polluted cities–most of which have rivers or other large bodies of water.
SeaBubbles are not Paris’s first venture into public-transit boats: In 2009, the city tried out a service called Voguéo, which consisted of taxis that traversed the river in around 30 minutes. But the experiment ended in 2011; the boats were slow and the service was infrequent and unreliable. The new taxis, by contrast, will be requested on-demand through an Uber-like app, and can take passengers from one side of the city to the other in 15 minutes.
The hydrofoil design means the SeaBubbles have 40% less drag than a motorboat of the same size, and they don’t create waves in the water.
The company is launching its first pilot in Paris because of the strong support of Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who is also planning better bike lanes for the city, and a new tram-bus (basically, a bus that looks and works like a tram) that will run 11 miles along the riverfront.
For the pilot, the company will only test one or two of its prototypes, but it plans to quickly scale up, and is currently working on raising $100 million (they’ve already raised over $3 million through venture capital funding). The startup is also in talks with several other with overcrowded streets, where the boats could provide a faster commute option.
“If we take the example of San Francisco . . . SeaBubbles between the Bay Bridge and Facebook’s headquarters would save one hour in the morning and one hour transport to return in the evening, for each employee who must make this journey,” Thébault says. “Imagine the savings in terms of time and pollution.”