Will Detroit Build New Amphibian Car?

By: Anthony Fontanelle

Alan Gibbs' gusto is infectious as he flaunted his Aquada, an amphibious vehicle that is a speed boat at sea and a sports car on land.

Gibbs, the founder and chairman of Gibbs Technologies, showed off last Wednesday in Birmingham what he described as production-ready versions of the Aquada and Quadski with the latter a personal watercraft that doubles as an all-terrain vehicle. After a number of delays, the well-off entrepreneur from New Zealand aims to start selling the amphibious vehicles in the United States by 2009. He is also developing a land-and-sea vehicle with Lockheed Martin for military use.

Gibbs began developing the Aquada while living in Metro Detroit in 1998 and 1999. Now that the car is production-ready, he wanted to sell it. If Gibbs' risky dream becomes reality, Michigan could gain some of the benefits. The mogul's company is scouting locations for technical centers, sales offices and manufacturing plants in Michigan and several other states. It also intends to open an office in Metro Detroit in the near future.

The office will house talks with probable suppliers, investors as well as government officials. "Personally, I'd like to do this in Detroit," said Gibbs at a news conference. "The conceptual development was done in Troy. The biggest problem with Michigan is its winters, which make it hard to test the vehicles." The Michigan Economic Development Corp. confirmed it has had preliminary talks with Gibbs Technologies.

In the past, entrepreneurs have tried to build and market amphibious vehicles but with little success. The German-made Amphicar, a slow boat-car hybrid, did not materialize because of regulatory issues and lack of interest. But Gibbs said that his are different. "The world has never had (an amphibious vehicle) that can go faster than a person walks fast on water," Gibbs said "And a fast walk on water is not much fun."

The three-passenger Aquada, which switches from boat to car in a matter of seconds, can reach 110 mph on the highway and 33 mph on salt or fresh water. The Aquada is priced at about $85,000. The prototype version of the car crossed the English Channel in 2003, overthrowing the previous amphibious car record of nine mph, Gibbs said.

The Aquada may not be featuring a but it sports more exotic parts like a steering wheel mounted in the middle and boating lights on the bow. Gibbs said that it will meet automotive and boating regulations.

The Quadski, an off-roading vehicle that is part Jet Ski and part ATV, instantly becomes a personal watercraft producing ultimate riding adventure. Finally, there is the Humdinga, a six-man military amphibian that can bring troops to a beachhead and use its four-wheel drive to leisurely cruise.

Gibbs announced Wednesday that his company was creating three divisions to handle what he believes will be a tidal wave of interest. He believes five percent of all vehicles would benefit from being amphibious. "It's not just a niche technology," he said. "Buses, SUVs, there's no limit to what we can make amphibious."

In creating innovations, Gibbs partnered with engineer Neil Jenkins, the president and CEO of Gibbs Technologies. They spent more than 1 million man hours and $100 million on the project. "There were a lot of obstacles in building the Aquada, but moving the tires out of the way was one of the biggest," Jenkins said. "The company often turned hurdles into patents as it developed new technologies or adapted old ideas with new approaches. The company has collected 70 worldwide patents."

Michigan knows cars and boats. And Gibbs believes the two should harmonize. The mogul is anticipating his goal would materialize as planned.

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