The tiny, pink car crawled down a ramp before an expectant crowd, then slid silently into the makeshift swimming pool. But its floorboard stayed dry. And its engine kept running, as the driver calmly steered his bobbing vessel around a corner.
Buyers of a new electric car who test drove the vehicle in Bangkok last Friday got up close and personal with this amphibious feature. Called the FOMM One, the watertight battery-powered vehicle is designed to help owners survive floods and transport them to the nearest dry ground. FOMM stands for First One Mile Mobility.
Japanese national Hideo Tsurumaki invented it to help people survive watery disasters like tsunamis, which have claimed thousands of lives in Japan and around Asia.
Eventually, he headed to Thailand to set up a factory. “Asean is a fast-growing area and Thailand is home to many Japanese (auto) manufacturers,” he told The Sunday Times (ST).
Mr Tsurumaki is now the chief executive of FOMM (Asia), a Thai-Japanese joint venture that will be producing the first such vehicles for sale from its factory in Thailand’s central Chonburi province, starting from next February.
Thailand is home to the largest automotive sector in Asean and has been offering tax breaks to spur the production of electric vehicles.
FOMM Asia, as one such beneficiary, is exempted from paying corporate tax for five years. The car’s 1.3m-wide frame seats a driver and front-seat passenger comfortably, though there is little legroom for passengers who brave its backseat. Drivers grip a butterfly-shaped steering wheel, and hand levers act as accelerators.
There is precious little space in this car, which retails at 664,000 baht (S$27,800). But FOMM Asia also plans to offer buyers roof racks, leather seats and even wireless mobile phone chargers.
From last Thursday to today, the firm has turned a driving track in Bangkok into an obstacle course for test drives. There, experts will push the car near its limit of 80kmh and churn up gravel around tight corners.
But its most unique property is its waterborne capability, an attractive feature in low-lying Bangkok, which encounters flash floods so regularly that one-time Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra once jested that those who want to be truly safe from flooding should go live on a hill.
More tragically, a 41-year-old woman drowned in September when her pickup truck stalled in a flooded underpass.
Turbine-like front wheels in the FOMM One control the car’s direction in water. The motors that power each front wheel are fully sealed and this prevents the car from stalling.
“(The water level) can be as high as 3m, or 5m, no problem, it can ‘swim’ in the water,” FOMM (Asia) general manager Tananan Kanjanakuha told ST. Even when fully loaded with four people, the car starts to float as soon as water levels rise to 70cm, he says.
But the car is not something you would want to take for leisure cruises down the river. At its fastest, it can move at just 2kmh in water.
In moderate floods, the car will keep its owner safe and dry – as sodden pedestrians wade past it through the water.