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Something Good Came Out of Japan’s Tsunami—A Floating Car

When a giant tsunami pounded Japan’s northeastern shore on March 11, 2011, Hideo Tsurumaki, a former Toyota Motor Corp. employee, felt helpless as he watched people still inside their cars get swept away by the floodwater.

The sight reminded Tsurumaki of his mother who lives near the coastline of another earthquake-prone part of the country. Because of her age and inability to walk freely, she will need to flee in a car in case the unthinkable happens. Tsurumaki thought if only he could supply his mother with a floating car, she would surely survive the onslaught of a tsunami.

And so two years later, Tsurumaki set out to build exactly that. With the help of notable backers, he now has a functioning watertight electric vehicle. Dubbed as the Concept One, the subcompact not only can float in floods, but also cruise at low speeds. His startup, First One Mile Mobility (FOMM), now boasts a rented factory near Bangkok in Thailand that’s scheduled to produce 10,000 cars annually starting late this year. By 2020, Tsurumaki hopes to take the company public.

“I intend to put one outside our house,” the 55 year old inventor said. “Many others will probably think the same.”

A floating car is nothing new. In fact, the technology has been around since the early 19th century. While Tsurumaki’s car may have been born out of his hopes of helping people survive a tsunami, the design doesn’t look like it can handle the sheer ferocity and strength of tidal waves and flood currents.

Nevertheless, Tsurumaki believes that the car’s floating capabilities can still save lives, and the turbine-shaped wheels will allow occupants to direct their car toward safety.

“The car may serve as an upgrade for tricycles in Bangkok as the government pushes for cleaner vehicles, and it’s just as easy to navigate as the tuk-tuks,” said Ken Miyao, an analyst at consultancy Carnorama Inc. in Tokyo. “I can see a reasonable chance for them to succeed.”

Tsurumaki says he wants the car to cost less than $5,000, and Miyao agrees that this is a good strategic move.

“They need to make cars as cheap as those without floating capabilities,” said Miyao. “I don’t think anyone would want to pay twice as much just for this gimmick they may be able to use only once in their lifetimes at best.”

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