This is an incredible example of how quickly innovations can be turned from ideas into real-world experiments.

A few months ago in May 2016, I saw some internet articles about a new public transport design from China: a “Transit Elevated Bus” (TEB) system which would drive above cars and be a frankenstein mix between a subway train, a bus and a moving tunnel.

I didn’t think much of it, as it was just a model design and there are thousands of those from design firms across the world.

However, last week I saw the Youtube video above: a firm in China has built the first prototype and is beginning to test it in the city of Qinhuangdao. And it’s chief suggests that it could be on the streets by the end of 2016 (i.e. within five months).

This means that within three months, a potentially groundbreaking innovation has gone from design release to real-world prototyping.

What is especially impressive here is that this is not a small product which can be rapidly and cheaply iterated in a lab. This is a big machine.

How big?

  • 22m long
  • 7.8m wide
  • 4.8m high
  • Capacity of 300 passengers per carriage (with multiple carriages possible)
  • One four-carriage train could replace 40 buses, cutting fuel consumption by 882 tons per year
  • Cost of $4.5million each (roughly the cost of 11 new emission-free buses)

The question on a lot of people’s minds is though: Is this a good idea?

While a lot of engineers are lauding the design and efficiency improvements, this is an excellent example of thinking how a new innovation fits into an overall whole system, and the risks and drawbacks that could entail.

For example, here are just a few of the considerations the new design has to consider:

  1. Height issues underneath the TEB: The design of the TEB is meant to allow roads to be used on two levels, with cars driving freely underneath the TEB. However, the area under the “bus” 
    [Editor: Let’s be honest, it’s a train not a bus] is only 7 feet. While this allows a most average sized cars to fit underneath it, it would prevent large cars, trucks, lorries, buses, old-style bicicles or Chinese Olympic Basketball Players to fit underneath and therefore prevent them using roads which they previously could. This is going to require significant routing changes and safety protocols to prevent oversized vehicles crashing or getting stuck underneath the TEB
  2. Controlling traffic under the TEB: Imagine you’re driving along in your car, and your turning is coming up to your right. Then a TEB slides over you, effectively creating a tunnel which you can’t turn out of. Or what if the TEB breaks down. You’re effectively stuck inside. This could be a significant issue if several carriages are tracked together, forming a tunnel-train up to 100m long.
  3. They can’t make sharp turns: Most city streets are built on a reasonably grid-based system, with angled turns allowing cars to change direction. However, like a train using tracks, the TEBs cannot make sharp turns and need to move in a more-or-less straight line. This would mean they could not make use of the flexibility of a road network, instead being forced to move in a similar way to a subway train with a roughly linear path through the city, reducing the proportion of the city they can service. Normal buses were designed to utilise the road as it exists, making them able to reach many more destinations in side-streets and through various routes.
  4. Rebuilding TEB stops for passengers: As these TEBs are designed to operate on existing roads, they will require new raised-platform stations to be built, which could be challenging if this would be right in front of first-floor buildings.
  5. Economics: The trains themselves cost $4.5million, not including the road works to install tracks, maintainance, charging technology and infrastructure for platforms. New emission-free buses could use the existing road infrastructure. So the question becomes not just about economics, but of things like reducing congestion and improving air quality as a result, at a higher price than other options.
  6. Is it even real?: There has been news from the BBC that many of the progress claims made by the creator have not been supported by local governments, and that one of the factories is lying empty and covered in weeds. The main company raising financing for the project was also recently blacklisted for misleading investors, and may be doing the same again now.

Either way, I’m fascinated to see how this innovation develops further, and if it ends up gaining traction.

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