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posted: 9/28/2019 6:00 AM

The newest hope to beat the traffic: a ‘flying’ water taxi that glides across town

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Oblong and glassy, with the ability to glide across water without making a sound, the SeaBubble looks like a vehicle straight out of a James Bond flick.

Despite resembling a Hollywood contrivance, the vehicle is actually a potentially new form of electric, urban transportation that could offer Parisians a watery alternative to hailing a taxi, driving a car or hopping on an electric scooter.

Known as a "flying taxi," the boat can reach 20 miles per hour as it rises nearly 30 inches above the water using winglike structures known as "hydrofoils" that are designed to reduce drag. Inside, the vehicle holds up to four passengers, who face one another as if riding in a London taxi, according to Le Parisien, whose reporter snagged a ride inside the futuristic vehicle.

Designers say the taxi -- which has been tested up and down the river Seine in the heart of Paris -- can be hailed using a smartphone app and could be available for rides as early as next year, pending final licensing. The lithium battery-powered vehicle with butterfly doors already has captured the attention of social media.

Lined by serene walking paths and quaint house boats squeezed against the riverbank, the Seine has always been a giant avenue flowing through Paris, trafficked by barges carrying commercial goods and river boats and cruise ships packed with tourists. Speaking to Reuters, SeaBubbles co-founder Alain Thebault said his vehicle is unique among this flow of aquatic traffic because it produces no sound and no pollution, making it an energy efficient alternative to gas-powered boats.

"It's the future," he said.

Thebault envisions a fleet of SeaBubbles, in both Paris and other cities, that alleviate "global gridlock" created by billions of cars on the road. Even if those cars are powered by clean energies, the startup's website says, they'll still create a "massive traffic jam."

"We believe that the future of mobility will rise from the water," the sites adds.

How would it work?

After ordering a ride, passengers would enter the vehicle with the help of a hostess and take their seats inside the SeaBubble, according to a description on the company's website, which notes that the interior was modeled after automobile interiors. After securing the doors and leaving the dock, the boat begins "flying" above the water at 7.5 miles per hour using its foils, "preventing any seasickness, sudden movements or rolling waves," the site claims.

Foils, which have been around for decades and are not unlike small aircraft wings for the water, can be attached to a boat's hull, allowing the vehicle to skim above the water with less resistance and at higher speed.

"Once the ride is over, the bubble slowly comes back to the water level to reach the dock, letting its passengers out and waiting for the next ones to board," the site adds.

In five years, SeaBubbles -- which were conceived as being halfway between a boat and a plane -- ambitiously plans for the company to be in 50 cities around the globe. Thebault told Le Parisien that his company is already fielding questions about the vehicle from luxury hotels and multiple municipalities, none of which were named.

The price: about $150,000 each, the paper reported.

An electric water taxi might someday compete with similar hybrid machines that are envisioned to crisscross cities from above. For several years now, a handful of companies have been jockeying to be the first to deliver an on-demand air taxi service.

Earlier this year, Lilium, a Munich-based startup founded in 2015, unveiled an electric, five-seat air-taxi prototype that it claims uses the same amount of electricity as an electric car. Powered by 36 jet engines, but lacking a tail, rudder and propellers, the aircraft is designed to take off and land vertically and has a range of about 185 miles in 60 minutes on a single charge. It completed a test flight earlier this year.

Companies such as Uber, Airbus, Rolls-Royce Holdings (the aircraft engine manufacturer, not the luxury car brand owned by Germany's BMW) and Volocopter also are developing flying cars with a single hope: to bypass traffic-clogged streets below.

Uber plans to create a network of flying taxis in Dubai and the Dallas area by the year 2020. Kitty Hawk -- a flying car startup created by Google co-founder Larry Page -- is already offering test flights to potential customers.