A Self-Driving Mini Cooper Submarine for Commuting on the L.A. River

You're late for a meeting in downtown Los Angeles and you're still all the way over in Burbank—13 miles and 45 stop-and-go minutes away by freeway. Instead, you walk a few blocks to the Los Angeles River, where you board a stylish pod-like watercraft. Soon, you're zipping down the river channel, faster than any vehicle on the 5 Freeway.

This could be L.A.'s future, according to a concept by BMW Group DesignworksUSA for a waterborne Mini Cooper built to travel the local river system.

Each year, the Los Angeles Auto Show has a theme for its Design Challenge, where it taps firms from around the world to dream up concept vehicles. The theme this year is "Biomimicry & Mobility 2025: Nature's Answer to Human Challenges," which, to the BMW Designworks team meant combining L.A.'s biggest transportation problem (traffic) with its greatest underutilized transportation asset (its rivers).

"We knew that traffic congestion was something we all wanted to improve," says designer Anders Thogersen. "And we have all these very big river systems in L.A. that we could use for a new highway system."

A Self-Driving Mini Cooper Submarine for Commuting on the L.A. River

Inspired by bioluminescence in jellyfish, the Mini Cooper pods would use a chemical reaction created when salt and fresh water mix in the presence of certain bacteria, creating hydrogen fuel. This process not only generates energy, but the water intake/outtake system can also serve as the propulsion method for the craft. Tiny "cleaner" robots, inspired by many types of fish that do this in real life, keep the Mini clean by nibbling algae from its surfaces.

"The idea is that we're making a submarine," says senior designer John Buckingham. "Even though jellyfish were the original inspiration for the direction, we moved towards a more conventional look and we chose Mini to make it fun and playful."

A Self-Driving Mini Cooper Submarine for Commuting on the L.A. River

The other key part of BMW Designworks' proposal is taking the L.A. River and other tributaries and filling them with enough water so these little submarines can travel around the city on these newly created "subways." In the winter the water does flow tremendously deep through these channels, so they reasoned that flooding the channels permanently would create a dual benefit of replenishing L.A.'s groundwater and preventing billions of gallons of stormwater from flowing directly into the ocean.

A Self-Driving Mini Cooper Submarine for Commuting on the L.A. River

Having hundreds of speeding boats in the river might raise a huge environmental concern for a body of water that is just starting to see some serious revitalization. Neither Thogersen or Buckingham had been down to the L.A. River before this project, and were surprised to learn about the movements to restore the river to a more natural state.

But the designers believe that allowing more people to use the river for transportation and recreation will engage more people in its future, much like the theory behind the kayaking programs offered on the river the past two summers. "It will bring people to the river more," says Buckingham. "Allowing it to have some commercial use will draw people down there, especially when winter comes around and there's no kayaking."

While we probably won't have these fleets of Mini-subs taking over our waterways just yet, this concept does help us start to think of L.A. as more of a river city. The BMW Designworks team sees us not only using existing rivers and bays for transportation, but also reinstating Venice Beach's canal system (which was once much larger than it is now), and possibly daylighting more creeks that have been asphalted over.

Maybe more feasible is a coastal transportation network—which, right now, only really consists of private ferries to Catalina—that would allow people in, say, Marina del Rey to commute to Long Beach via ferry instead of the 405 Freeway, or to take a water taxi from Santa Monica to Malibu and thus avoid traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway.

Also feasible is the idea of turning at least part of the L.A. River into a canal—without a current to worry about, this would open up a whole range of options for the river. A water bus could run from one neighborhood to another. People could easily kayak to and from work.

And, someday, maybe, take one of these submarines, too.