A New 'Alternative' Vehicle:
The Amphibious Car
U.K.-based Gibbs Techonlogies introduces a new vehicle to the U.S.
Secret service agents would seem logical customers, and the not-quite idle rich would love being seen in such a toy in summer, but could the larger group of frustrated commuters and economizing recreationalists take to the machine as entrepreneur Alan Gibbs suggests?
Doubtful, as the Gibbs Aquada has been a bust in Europe since its 2003 debut there, but that's likely missing the major impact of Gibbs Technologies marriage of auto, marine and propulsion technologies. With three amphibious vehicles, the car-like Aquada, the military-esque Humdinga and the personal-sized Quadski, Gibbs is poised to build or license their high-speed amphibious technology to whoever can use it.
High-Speed Amphibian Tech
Of course, amphibious cars are nothing new, the best of these being the Amphicar. With its bobbed proportions and telltale propeller, the Amphicar was popular enough in lake regions of the U.S. by the 1960s to be an accepted novelty when spotted on the road. But like all swimming cars, it was dreadfully slow in the water and couldn't deliver more than curio utility as either a boat or a car.
What makes the Gibbs vehicles interesting is their systems approach; Gibbs didn't set out to make a swimming car, but rather integrate land and marine technology to form a unique classification, the amphibian. Gibbs has sunk, so to speak, more than $100 million into the program, with over 60 patents pending in nearly every aspect of the vehicle design.
Gibbs has reset the state of the art in numerous aspects of amphibian design. The body shape is both aero- and hydrodynamic, drag reduction in water has been hugely decreased via retracting wheels and an efficient combination of piston power and water jet propulsion, coupled with a planing hull has lifted the Aquada from the sailboat doldrums to a speedboat-like 30 plus mph.
Some of these breakthroughs must work through a thicket of cross purposes. Lighting on a car is nearly opposite to that of a boat; bow lift on a boat is necessary to avoid plunging accidents but front end lift in a car is undesirable at higher speeds. Even the loads absorbed by a boat and a car are near polar opposites; the boat distributes loads relatively evenly across its hull while a car must withstand concentrated loads where the suspension mates to the chassis.
Above all, dual-purpose machines are inevitably heavier and less efficient than the two single purpose machines they synergize. It was therefore necessary to wait for the availability of lightweight-yet-strong modern composites as well as pay strict attention to maximizing powertrain efficiency if a truly functional amphibian was to be built.
To meet its lofty speed goals, the Aquada uses a carefully shaped outer body supported inside by a metal space frame. In this is conceptually similar to integrating a NASCAR racer's rollcage into a load-distributing unibody structure as used in a typical sedan.
On the road the Aquada's inner steel frame distributes its loads into the outer composite body, while in water the opposite is true. Neither structure is stiff—or heavy—enough to do the job alone, but together they are.
Perhaps most intriguing is the retractable suspension. Based on the MacPherson strut design, the Aquada's suspension uses a single strut with conventional automotive spring and dampening functions, but also fitted with a 17-valve hydraulic system, folding joints and a safety pin to avoid inadvertent retraction. Upon entering the water, a push of a single button stows the suspension, brakes and wheels in less than 12 seconds.
Propulsion in the ten Aquada prototypes currently testing in Michigan is from a 2.5-liter 160-horsepower engine. Gibb's press materials are careful not to specify precisely which engine this may be, but we assume a turbocharged four cylinder would provide the necessary combination of power and weight (a 175-horsepower V6 is used in the euro-spec Aquada).
A take-off from the transmission powers a carefully designed water jet for marine propulsion; Gibbs says the compact jet produces nearly a ton of thrust at half the size and a quarter of the expected weight. It's enough for the Aquada to have set a 32.8 mph record speed run, and sufficiently reliable for Sir Richard Branson to break the amphibian speed record across the English Channel by four hours. More prosaically, Gibbs demonstration video shows the Aquada pulling a water skier.
What We Expect
While we have not piloted an Aquada, it's clear that its driver-center, three-across seating, no doors and Bimini top will have practical considerations, or at least provide numerous conversation starters. On land we'd assume the Aquada would deliver more than acceptable road handling and middling performance given the moderate power and 3,225 lbs. weight.
In water the Aquada's compact dimensions, relatively flat entry, pure planing design and must-sit accommodations promise a stiff ride in any sort of chop. Its fairly flat rear makes us think following seas would require busy helmsmanship, but given the powerful and responsive water jet, this should rarely matter. Obviously a calm water craft, the Aquada should prove an entertaining combination of capabilities given fair weather and flat water.
Quadski and Humdinga
If the Aquada purports to serve both fun and functional activities, Gibbs' other two offerings, the Quadski and Humdinga, are aimed at the pure recreational and perhaps the functional or military markets.
Using the same propulsion, structural and retractable suspension technologies—if not precisely the same hardware—the all-terrain Quadski is rated at 50 mph on land and water, while the Humdinga can carry five, hit 100 mph on land and 40 mph in water.
Rescue services could possibly use the zippy but carrying-limited Quadski in specialized applications, but the vastly more powerful and weight-capable Humdinga points to the high-speed amphibian's more useful potential.
Gibbs lists a 350-horsepower gasoline engine and full-time four-wheel drive as major Humdinga specifications. Its 9.2-second 0-60 mph land acceleration certainly requires no apologies and its size and weight-carrying promises vastly improved in-the-water utility, not to mention its 10-seconds to plane and 40 mph top water speed. Gibbs says the larger Humdinga illustrates the scale-ability of their technology. They promise any craft from Quadski to passenger bus size can be successful.
Amphibians, like personal submarines, have been the stuff of Hammacher Schlemmer catalogs and boutique conversions such as the Australian Platypus, but Gibbs' technology genuinely seems capable of injecting practicality into the equation. Alan Gibbs suggests urban freeway congestion could be partially alleviated by water-scooting Aquadas; that's fanciful in the car's present configuration but such outside-the-box thinking is necessary with new technology.
One point avoided so far has been cost. Without the economies of mass production and the inevitable trade-offs of a multifunction vehicle, getting something like the Aquada past the playboy stage is formidable. In fact, the Aquada was originally tabbed at $285,000 but not even Sir Richard Branson bit at that price, which was lowered to $142,000 where it still hasn't lit the world on fire.
However, the Gibbs' technologies look viable in commercial and military roles. In fact, General Dynamics is ahead with the concept, their Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle having been in development for the U.S. Marine Corps since 1996. The tracked and water-jet EFV boasts such heavyweight defense department performance as carrying a crew of three and 17 combat-ready Marines 25 nautical miles to shore at excess of 20 knots, then pushing inland at up to 45 mph. This in a cannon-armed, turreted, tank-like personnel carrier. The EFV uses blunt force, however.
Its two-staged turbocharged diesel produces well over 2000 horsepower and planes thanks to an adjustable flat steel plate doubling as armor. Gibbs approach seems more suited to less lead-prone climes where foresters, rescue and tour personnel work.
Currently Gibbs is setting up the business and manufacturing apparatus for North American sales of the Aquada and Quadski in 2009. Militarily, Gibbs has teamed with Lockheed Martin on several concept vehicles. The company is certainly thinking big.
"Our plans for North America are ambitious, aggressive and achievable," Gibbs has said, stating, "Aquada could generate annual sales volumes of 100,000 or more within five years." Perhaps we should get our driving gloves and water skis ready now.
If it has an engine and moves, Tom Wilson is interested in it. Now a freelance auto writer, Tom tries to ride, drive, fly and float everything he can wiggle into. His credits include a few local racing championships, a decade of magazine editing, three technical engine books and many hundreds of magazine articles. Current interests include new fuels and vehicle technology.
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