Will China's futurist road-straddling bus remain a pipe dream?

The Transit Elevated Bus (TEB) as seen in Qinhuangdao in September. Photo: John Chan

The project of the Transit Elevated Bus (TEB), once touted as a vagarious solution to China's traffic congestion for its spacious passenger compartment straddling two meters above the road to allow cars to pass through underneath, appears to gather dust due to capital shortage.

Media reports said that the TEB prototype, which was used in its maiden road test in August in the coastal city of Qinhuangdao in northern China's Hebei province, has been abandoned for two months in a makeshift hanger in the city, with its body covered by dust and rust.

The mothballed road-straddling bus is currently guarded by a pair of security guards, who were quoted as saying that the management of TEB Technology Development Co, the company behind the TEB project, had been out of touch for months.

Back in August, the initial test drive of the TEB prototype made a splash in China and even around the world, which was described as an epoch-making step to turn the bizarre concept into a reality. At the time, Song Youzhou, the inventor of the TEB, boasted the 4.8-meter-tall, electricity-powered bus as an alternative option of China's public ground transportation, which would contribute to alleviating traffic jams, cutting carbon emissions and saving road space and construction cost.

However, on the technical front, the TEB equipped with a passenger compartment overhead was afflicted with travel safety concerns and the incompatibility with China's real road conditions. Except regular sedans, trucks and other big vehicles measuring more than two meters in height would be unable to pass underneath the road-straddling bus, which is also too tall to drive under the country's pedestrian bridges whose height limit is normally set under 4.8 meters.

Further, the TEB project also drew skepticism over its financing channel, as its major venture capitalist Huaying Kailai, a Beijing-based online lending platform, was reportedly suspected of illegally extracting money from investors by selling TEB-linked wealth management products with a high annual return rate in the name of government endorsement.

On November 27, the Internet Society of China bombarded Huaying Kailai for fabricating its credit license, two days after a China Central Television program exposed that the online lender was suspected of illegally collecting public funds.

But there is no specific reason to explain why Huaying Kailai stopped financing the TEB project.

According to media reports, the TEB's inventor Song has reached a new investment agreement with an energy-focused state-owned enterprise based in Beijing to push forward its ambitious project, in which he said Huaying Kailai only invested billions of yuan. But song refused to give the name of the new investor.

Previously, Song alleged that TEB Technology inked cooperation pacts with five Chinese cities including Qinhuangdao, the northern city of Tianjin, Shenyang, the capital city of northeastern China's Liaoning province, and Nanyang and Zhoukou in central China's Henan province.

However, rumors about Huaying Kailai and media reports about the financial strain has dampened the confidence of these local government partners, with some asking TEB Technology to make the road-straddling bus a national project before talking about investment, the Paper, a Chinese news outlet, quoted sources with knowledge of the matter as saying.

According to a report run by Sixth Tone, a sister publication of the Paper, an employee working at the publicity department of Beidaihe district government in Qinhuangdao said that she is unsure of what will happen to the TEB project in the future, predicting that the government's next move would be to tear the TEB prototype down as it occupies half a side of a functioning road in the city, forcing vehicles on one side to crowd together on the opposite side.

Facts indicate that the once-celebrated TEB project will find it harder to make progress in China unless it can convince its new investors that the futurist bus is practical.

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