Autonomous cars are all the talk these days. But what about cars and trucks that float on water and can race at high speeds on land and sea?
Gibbs Sports Amphibians in Auburn Hills, Mich., may be the master of the land-water vehicle. The company's unique product line got some international attention this week when it was featured Monday on "Top Gear," a British TV show with 340 million viewers.
In the episode that aired on BBC America, the Quadski, a quad bike that reaches speeds of 45 mph on land and water, races a sporty Alfa Romeo 4C along Lake Como in Italy. "It should get the name out there in a big way," said Graham Jenkins, sales and marketing manager for Gibbs Sports Amphibians.
Amphibious vehicles that can travel on land or sea date back to carriages in the 1700s, and history is dotted with creations such as alligator tugs logging companies used to cross rivers in the 1870s and assorted military vehicles over the years. Hovercrafts are one form of amphibious vehicles that travel on an air cushion. More conventional amphibious vehicles often use tracks instead of wheels.
And there are boats that can drive at ramp speeds to launch themselves, but Gibbs sets itself apart by achieving real speed no matter what the surface and can switch from one mode to the other in less than three seconds. "We're the world's only real manufacturer of amphibious vehicles that reach higher speeds than 5 mph," Jenkins said.
It is James Bond kind of stuff. In fact, Gibbs was approached about appearing in a film with 007 but the company turned down the offer. "We would have had to pay a huge amount, and we were not interested," Jenkins said.
Cornering the market
Gibbs Amphibians is growing its leadership with a series of moves designed to corner the assorted markets for these unique vehicles. Subsidiary Gibbs Sports Amphibians ramped up its sales projections and capacity in Auburn Hills for the Quadski.
The goal is to sell 1,500 Quadskis this year and double the number of retail outlets that carry the $42,000 quad bike.
Gibbs has about 150 employees in Auburn Hills who built and sold about 200 Quadskis last year. The company has increased capacity to be able to make 3,000 units a year, said Jenkins. If sales exceed forecasts, more workers could be added in the future. It takes about three days to make a Quadski, which has a BMW motorcycle engine.
There are 16 U.S. dealers with 21 retail outlets, and Jenkins would like to see the Quadski sold by about 50 marine and other sports retail outlets by the end of the year.
Gibbs has not faced competition from conventional carmakers and Jenkins thinks that is because it is such an odd segment. Determining viability required a business plan that researched ATV and water scooter sales to extrapolate how many customers might want both in a single package. One advantage is it is a private company that answers only to its two enthusiastic founders.
They have invested more than $200 million to date. "If we hit our targets this year, we will be in profits," Jenkins said.
Evolving through time
Gibbs dates back to 2003 and its first creation: a three-seat sports car called the Aquada, introduced in the U.K. With most of the inquiries coming from the U.S., the founders set up Gibbs Sports Amphibians in Auburn Hills in 2007.
It developed the Quadski and launched it in October 2012. The first shipments were in January 2013, followed by international exports in December.
Another division of the company, Gibbs Amphitrucks, also is ramping up with the announcement that it signed a 12-year licensing agreement with Singapore Technologies Kinetics to make and sell amphibious trucks in Southeast Asia.
While the Quadski is a recreational vehicle, the Humdinga is more of a first-responder emergency vehicle, Jenkins said. It is 21.5 feet long and can carry a half-ton of supplies to aid communities hit by floods and tsunami where the terrain is rough, covered in water and underwater debris.
Gibbs has tested three prototypes that can travel at highway speeds, go off-road, hit 30 m.p.h. on the water and handle waves up to 2 feet.
ST Kinetics plans to build and sell a version of the Humdinga for disaster relief. The Asian company needs about a year to finalize vehicle details and set up a production facility in Singapore.
Based on government contracts being negotiated, ST Kinetics expects to sell about 200 vehicles in two years.
While the Gibbs prototype has a carbon fiber body, ST Kinetics is exploring other composites for the monocoque body construction. ST Kinetics has two engines under consideration and will choose its engine supplier within months, Jenkins said.
Additionally, ST Kinetics has licensed much of the technology, such as the retractable suspension that allows the vehicles to go from truck to boat in seconds; the water jet design, which is shorter and lighter than traditional watercraft; and a hull design with cutaways for the retractable wheels.
Jenkins said the Singapore company could use the technology to create its own amphibious vehicle but there are no plans to do so.
The ST Kinetics license is just for southeast Asia, but Gibbs will allow them to sell globally until other licenses are sold. Gibbs ultimately would like to have as many as seven licenses with other companies.
ST Kinetics pays Gibbs an undisclosed amount upfront and a royalty which is a percentage of the sale price of each vehicle.