Paris is piloting hydrofoil water taxis

Artist's impression. Image: Seabubble.

The people of Paris could be using the waterways instead of roads, as early as summer. A new design concept called the Seabubble is due to be piloted in the French capital. The people behind the idea foresee a fleet of small electric hydrofoil taxi vehicles carrying passengers along the Seine, and much like a car sharing arrangement, its designers have even suggested they may be piloted by individual users.

Seabubbles, which can seat up to five people and are shaped like a car, employ proven hydrofoil technology which has been in use since Enrico Forlanini first baffled the inhabitants of Italy with it in the early 1900s.

Hydrofoil technology uses an underwater foil or arm which helps to lift the boat’s hull out of the water so that it can coast on the water’s surface. The drag reduction on these fast and efficient modes of water transport means a smoother ride – even in choppy waters. Larger hydrofoils are in use across the world. You can already catch a hydrofoil ferry in St Petersburg, Russia.

Commute by river

If these hydrofoil vehicles were adopted as a city transport, it would provide a fun, silent, electrically propelled and emission-free alternative to spending time in cars or buses on congested roads, or in the gloom of the Paris Metro system. Its designers are reportedly also seeking permission to use them on the Thames in London.

Paris already has an established and successful dry land equivalent in the electric car sharing scheme Autolib, so the Seabubble already has a lot going for it.

While the thought of using a water vehicle to get around a city with a 30-mile diameter may seem curious, let’s not forget that water has been used to travel across large cities for years. London, Venice, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, New York, Auckland, and Rotterdam all use water buses and taxis of some description.

The river system in Paris snakes its way through the city in such a way that many important parts of town would be in easy walking distance from any moored boat. But as promising as this may be, there are still many unanswered questions.

Boat licences

Although water transport is used across the globe, they are all usually operated by a captain, and run along set routes, but Seabubbles’ designers propose that they could be driven by members of the public. Anyone operating a boat in France requires a boat licence. In fact, there are three different licence types, depending on the type of “driving” you intend to do. So whether there would be enough incentive for someone to embark on a lengthy and thorough training course is yet to be seen. It might make more sense for these to exist as a taxi service for most.

It’s fair to assume that navigating the waters would require some measure of seamanship since avoiding collisions with other Seabubbles and drifting objects would present a daily challenge. Larger vessels would also be a constant and inflexible presence on the Seine and if a large quantity of Seabubbles come into use, they will contribute significantly to the on-water traffic, of which there is already plenty.

Nevertheless, Seabubbles claim that compared to roads, there would be less objects to hit in the water and that their vehicle is easier to handle than a car. They also suggest that innovative detail solutions could take care of any likely gremlins. Technology such as sonar and sensors could be employed to “read” the water ahead and reduce engine performance when objects are spotted. Or an automatic parking function could self-moor the vehicles once they are within reach of their landing.


Maintenance and repairs

Seabubbles can reach a speed of 20mph, and although this is seemingly modest, it is actually quite respectable on water. However, water feels firmer at higher speeds so this can put strain on the vehicle body. The stresses on their gliding points are high, and their structure is subject to a high levels of vibration – meaning that hydrofoils require regular and extensive maintenance. This combined with high usage and a potentially changing, relatively inexperienced clientele, means they may come in for frequent repairs.

All this considered, the project already has the backing of the city of Paris. And if the French pilot phase goes well, some of these questions should be answered, and Seabubbles may well provide Paris with another attraction.The Conversation

Chris Ebbert is senior lecturer in product design at Nottingham Trent University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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