Rocket on wheels

The world's fastest road vehicle has a green heart.

Why fly when your car will take you long-haul in speed and comfort?

The Acabion car is the fastest road vehicle in the world. It can reach 340mph on 50 per cent throttle in less than 30 seconds. Beside it, most high-performance cars look like donkey carts at a vegetable market.

But while these macho statistics might make the headlines and keep the company's name in the record books, the creator of this rocket-on-wheels, Dr Peter Maskus, is candid about the real reason he's built such a speed machine: to keep young boys and girls dreaming about their possible futures.

He wants to use the power of their imagination to change the world's transport system - from the wasteful, gas-guzzling monstrosity it is today, into a sleek, clean, sustainable global network of personal mobility.

"If you look at an eight-year-old boy today, what is he dreaming about?" asks Maskus. "He dreams Ferrari, he dreams Bugatti, he dreams Aston Martin. Fast, but inefficient. What we tried to do is place a new guiding star in the efficiency quadrant. We want the eight-year-olds to dream about efficiency, because it's still fast; actually, it's much faster."

Swiss-based Maskus is an engineer by training, with a PhD in the quality mass-production of combustion engines. While working as a production consultant for Mercedes and Porsche, seeking ever more efficiency in production processes, he kept wondering why the vehicles themselves could not also be made more efficient.

"We asked ourselves, 'How would nature build a car?'" and much of the inspiration for the Acabion is derived from the answer to this question. The vehicle is shaped like a dolphin, with the two seats in-line to reduce drag. There is little excess flab and the engine is merely 1.3 litres, far smaller than most on the road today.

Learning from nature

Taking insight from nature is known as bionics, and Maskus is passionate about the topic thanks to a wonderful biology teacher at school. For him, the most important principles are efficiency and simplicity, with each component perfectly suited to its intended use. For example, the streamlined nose cone has a small hole used as an air inlet, and a transparent front for the headlight to shine through; the seats are not only comfortable, they form part of the crash protection for the driver.

"Bionics always tries to make things simple, but in technology it's often opposite: an engineer trying to make it as complicated as possible, because then he is the hero in control of this eight-axis-robot. Well, yes, give me a break, maybe you don't need the robot if you make your process simple."

He criticises modern car designers for their wasteful ways. "The biggest niche is one or two people travelling without a lot of luggage. And we do not have a car for that niche, it does not exist. My nephew is 25 years old, studying physics in Berlin. He bought himself the smallest car he could get, a VW Lupo; it's still one tonne, it's still four seats, he doesn't need it. He travels with his box, alone. It's weird."

But while Maskus criticises the weird and wasteful designs, he is unafraid to use first-class ideas from the past. The Acabion has the aerodynamics of a glider, the drive chassis of a motorbike, the wheels of a super-bike, the ergonomic shell-seats and entertainment comforts of a car. It is a "recombination" of excellent concepts, just like DNA encoding human traits that may reappear many generations later."This is a very strong tool in biology: to take patterns that have been good, and recombine them. The Acabion is not new, the patterns are all there," explains Maskus.

Further, he says, the Acabion is evolving. It's now ready for the super-rich to purchase and is in its fourth generation as he makes ever finer tweaks to the design. You might think 500km per hour was enough, but Maskus has sights on more than just speed, and the vehicle must continue to improve. "The gasoline-powered versions of the Acabion crafts will consume four to ten times less fuel than a compact diesel car. This will have a massive effect: the Acabion, even as a gasoline version, will help to stop global warming. It will improve mobility," says Acabion's website.

Squeezing the last drop of performance from the machine is critical to Maskus's dreams. The vehicle currently weighs 440kg, but Maskus knows from where another 80kg can be removed, and the coefficient of drag is currently 0.12, but Maskus has set a tough target of 0.1 (a Toyota Prius is 0.26).


The passenger sits behind the driver like the pillion rider on a motorbike. As for why the vehicle is shaped like a dolphin, Maskus says: "The interesting thing is that the parameters of projected area and aerodynamic drag multiply. So, if you have a third of aerodynamic drag and a third of your projected area, you have one-ninth of the fuel consumption. This is what makes the Acabion so strong. It is very, very efficient just because of these factors multiplying."

When such a lightweight body and low drag is achieved, Maskus will be ready to launch the electric version, and he's designing for today's batteries not tomorrow's "nano-technology, high-tech, super-duper battery".

"We would get 500 miles range with 100mph speed, even today," says Maskus. "But we want to have everything in terms of aerodynamic efficiency to get the most out of these batteries - we would not
need that for a gasoline engine. But for the battery, we want to have top aerodynamics... really, really top."

Maskus is insistent that personal transport - rather than mass transit - will dominate the future, but the current generation of wasteful cars and four-by-fours cannot last. And given the performance that can be achieved with super-efficiency, Maskus sees no reason why the role of personal transport cannot expand to include journeys that are today achieved in a train or aeroplane.

"I think such a lot about future generations: our children, our grandchildren, they will want to travel. They will want to see the world and they will do that with electric solar energy," he says.

He plans a global network of raised concrete tracks, cheap and quick to build. Tracks are accessed via on-ramps at city terminals and populated by computer-controlled, electric Acabions (called Streamliners) speeding their passengers in total comfort from Lucerne to London in an hour-and-a-half, or from Paris to Beijing in 12 hours. "Solar electric, fully-automated, door-to-door at 400mph. These high speed tracks will form the GTBO-Net (Global Transport Bionic Optimized Network), as the physical mobility counterpart to the communication mobility Internet," predicts Acabion's website.

"The people who were riding horse drawn carriages could not imagine a car travelling at 200km per hour and we have the same situation now with the streamliners and the elevated tracks. We cannot imagine it, but this does not mean it will not come," says Maskus.

The road ahead

But when can we expect this vision to take shape? For a mere €1.8m, Maskus promises you can have your own petrol driven Acabion (the GTBO) delivered in 2011, and the electric version will come three to five years later, with mass production perhaps ten years after that.

Maskus will not compromise on his ideas and while he admits offers of investment are welcome and could significantly reduce these time scales, he is determined to retain control. "I don't think about how many I can build in ten years. I have just one thought, how would the perfect craft look for me? How would I want to have it?"

He realises he may not be around to see the complete transformation of human mobility, but he has written a futuristic novel where the GTBO-Net is a reality in 2140. "You have a silk road going from Lisbon to Beijing, you have a streamliner track going from South Africa through a Gibraltar tunnel to Paris and London," he pauses, before finally adding, "OK, so it's just fantasy. Sometimes things happen faster than we think they will, but I honestly don't know."

However, giving boys and girls their dreams and saving their futures, is a task that should not be rushed, and Maskus is utterly committed to the journey.

 "We have the concrete, we have the electronic devices, we have the mechatronic abilities. There is nothing missing. It's all there," he says. It's just a matter of time.

He admits to making good money as a lean-production consultant - and has invested much of it into the project - but those days are eclipsed by his vision. As of two years ago and for the future, he says: "I live and die by the Acabion."

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