Skipper Alain Thébault chose Paris to test his eco-taxis that hover above the water, captivating the world to fund his urban transport revolution. Initially announced for June, the Sea Bubbles are still 3D models…
In July 2016, on a visit to the hi-tech expo Vivatech, the French Minister of Economy Emmanuel Macron announced that he had ordered two futuristic shuttles for Bercy. “The customs officers told me that their boat was making waves,” he explained, just as the Sea Bubbles were navigating discreetly in the Seine. With acquired speed, the new electric Hydroptere with its 4-person cabin hovers 70cm above the water, showing its skates (also called foils), which slice silently through the waves. These pseudo-wings, submerged at a 45-degree angle, are lifted by the water, the same way air lifts a plane. On foils, the friction is reduced by 40%, and thus requires less energy for propulsion.
Developed in the late 19th century, the Hydroptere is dear to its creator Alain Thébault, the skipper who is also behind the Sea Bubbles. He and his Hydroptere, a trimaran mounted on suspensions derived from the Rafale airplane, even beat two world records for sailing speed in 2009, including one that surpassed 100km/h. In 2015, Thébault shifted his focus from speed to an alternative vehicle for the waterways. He teamed up with windsurfer Anders Bringdal to found Sea Bubbles, a project to make floating taxis with zero carbon emission. These “bubbles of the sea” would run 100km on a single battery charge. Meanwhile, docks equipped with solar panels and windmills would recharge them with 100% renewable energies.
Anne Hidalgo in ambush
Ever since its genesis in 2015, the Sea Bubbles were designed to “decongest the cities”. Macron wasn’t the only one to fall under their spell. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo suggested they experiment with the prototype on the Seine. Bingo! The retrofuturistic images of little shuttles levitating in the heart of Paris in the new millennium have been seen around the world. London, Geneva, New York, Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area and even Phnom Penh have fallen in love with the charming Sea Bubbles.
— Anne Hidalgo (@Anne_Hidalgo) January 12, 2017
Cute river bug raises funds
Even before the Sea Bubbles existed as a prototype, Thébault’s start-up raised 500,000€ from the venture capital Partech, and public funding from BPI and Henri Seydoux, owner of Parrot, who aims to produce the French Bubbles. Then Thébault felt like adding foils, contacted Tesla for batteries and dreams of an autonomous version. It wasn’t long before the media compared Sea Bubbles to Uber (which is also thinking about having its own nautical fleet). Thébault hopes to sell each Sea Bubble for 12,000€, putting pressure on transportation with over 1,000 vehicles ordered.
Alain Thébault and the 14 prototypes
While the start-up is valued at 10 million euros, manufacturing the first Paris prototypes will almost liquidate the first round. But this is only routine for the skipper, whose Hydroptere demanded 20 years of research. He admitted to Usine Nouvelle that he had started off designing the Sea Bubbles alone, with the common sense “of a high-tech peasant”. Later he and Anders Bringdal joined engineers in the garage of an Airbus subcontractor, where they’re working on 1:8 models. Just keeping the passengers from drowning required more than 14 prototype versions! In July 2016, Le Point showed a video of a successful test on the water.
Last December, the MAIF Avenir fund burst into Sea Bubbles capital with 3 million euros. Case closed? Effective marketing, followed by political and financial support, leave no room for doubt. However, challenges lie ahead to prevent the Sea Bubbles from becoming… a financial bubble.
The Seine is not a dream highway for the Sea Bubbles
In September, Slovenian competitor Quadrofoil, which had already produced the Hydroptere, reached out to the Thébault/Hidalgo pair:
— Quadrofoil (@Quadrofoil) September 29, 2016
According to engineer Olivier Daniélo, the Quadrofoil, a two-seater that weighs almost 100kg, needs to reach a speed of 16km/h in order to spread its wings. The Sea Bubbles have 4 seats and the weight that comes with it… Furthermore, according to the territorial management of the Seine basin, navigation speed is limited to 18km/h at 20m from the riverbank. Ile Saint-Louis authorizes a maximum of 6km/h! And some zones prohibit speeding over the limit. Will barges and other river boats be to Sea Bubbles what tractors are to highways?
The Quadrofoil “flies” on the water since 2014:
Foil or fail?
Finally, when the urban hydropteres aren’t making waves, they fear them, says Daniélo, because the waves compromise their suspension. Unless Anne Hidalgo invents a lane reserved for taxis on the Seine, Paris is a poisoned apple. Thébault is no doubt already dreaming of San Francisco and its 40km/h navigation speed limit to compete with land transportation. Road traffic in Paris crawls along at 15km/h, but the time it takes to get on and off the Sea Bubbles could weigh them down to no more than a tourist attraction.
Is there a pilot in the Bubble?
Thébault can always play the price card, promising a river tour across Paris for 10€. Then there’s the self-navigating solution. During the time it takes to get all the authorizations (not to mention manufacture the prototype), all the cars may be flying. As to the docks, if windmill tests have proven to be efficient, there is still the unknown of extreme seasonal variations in the flow of the Seine.
The announcement of the first tests to be held in February is merely an anecdote. We’ll have to wait for June, when 10 Sea Bubbles will begin service in Paris. Until then, a fundraising of 15 million euros should cover the industrialization phase. To counter the fate of the Hydroptere? The trimaran that made Thébault’s reputation was sold in April 2016 to pay off the debts of its creator…
More on the Sea Bubbles