Reel Science

The Past, Present, and (Possible) Future of Submersible Cars

Will James Bond’s ocean-ready sports car ever become a reality?

Magnifying glass over a film strip showing a red-toned image of a woman inside a car, creating a det...
The Future of Transportation

No James Bond movie would be complete without a snazzy sports car. But the Lotus Esprit that took Bond on an underwater chase in The Spy Who Loved Me is arguably one of the most memorable.

As enemies shoot at Bond from land and air, he speeds off a pier and dives his car right into a lake. The Esprit submerges into the depths, then quickly transforms. Its wheels tuck in, and fins pop out on either side to help the car-boat steer. A line of propellers emerges from the rear, and a chamber opens on the car’s roof, where Bond shoots a missile with enough force to fly out of the water and take down a helicopter.

The 1977 film brought the concept of a transformative, sleek, submersible car to the big screen. Almost 50 years later, are we any closer to the futuristic Bond vision of driving our vehicles both on land and in water?

Most likely not.

“I think if there was a time that it was ever going to happen, it would have been in the past,” Derek E. Moore, an automotive historian and Curator of Collections at Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, tells Inverse.

While amphibious vehicles have existed since the 1800s, there has never been one that’s fully submersible, and for good reason. Designing a vehicle that can go fully underwater presents notable design challenges, let alone tossing in a few missiles.

The Real-Life Bond Car

The sQuba is capable of diving up to 10 meters underwater.


The closest anyone’s gotten to creating a real-life replica of the Bond car is probably the Swiss experimental automotive company Rinspeed. In 2008, they built the sQuba, a concept car that was fully electric and could seat two passengers while diving up to 10 meters (32.8 feet) underwater.

There was just one catch: The sQuba did not have a roof, and passengers wore scuba gear to breathe. The wheels on the sQuba didn’t fold into the car’s body, and its propellors were visible both underwater and on land. And, of course, it didn’t shoot missiles.

These differences highlight a few major design challenges when creating a submersible car. First, and most obvious, is the pressure difference. Cars are made to withstand the pressure of Earth’s air, not water – and the deeper a vehicle sinks, the more pressure it has to bear.

Most submarines are cylinder-shaped so that water pressure stays even on all sides. But the many edges, bumps, and flat sections on an average car would create weak pressure points on the vehicle, risking the possibility that it could break apart at significant depths. Hence why the sQuba was only designed to travel 10 meters below the surface, where it would experience about twice as much pressure as on land.

Sealed Shut

The Amphicar can drive on the surface of water and doesn’t have a roof.

James D. Morgan/Getty Images

Even if a submersible car was shaped more like a submarine, its doors, windows, trunk, and sunroof would also have to be specially sealed to not let any water in while submerged.

“When you have to have doors and things like that that seal, [it] becomes very challenging underwater under pressure, whereas a floating automobile doesn't need as much engineering and development,” Moore says.

That’s one of the major reasons why most amphibious cars built in the past 200-plus years are designed to float, not dive. Moore points to a few examples, such as the Amphicar, which was mass-produced in the 1960s and can sail on water like a boat.

The car does little transforming once it hits the water, unlike the Bond car. “If you were to look at the Amphicar sitting on dry land, you can see the prop shaft and propeller sticking out underneath it,” Moore says.

But less moving parts means fewer things that can break. And while there were only 3,878 Amphicars ever made, its design has certainly stood the test of time. Even Disney manages a whole fleet used for joyrides at Disney Springs in Orlando.

A Boom For Personal Submersibles

Nemo’s submersible can also launch director from a beach or marina.


While the few amphibious cars in existence aren’t exactly Bond-worthy, there is a different type of vehicle that 007 might choose if The Spy Who Loved Me were filmed today. Personal submersibles are beginning to flood the market, and are available to virtually anyone who can fork over the cash.

Many of these vessels are designed to launch from yachts, such as the suite of leisure submersibles designed by the Florida-based company Triton. But others, like the NEMO submersible from Dutch company U-Boat Worx, can launch directly from a beach or marina.

Like the Rinspeed sQuba, NEMO is fully electric. But the way it travels to the depths – and how far they can travel downward – is more in line with traditional submarines.

“Many submarines, including smaller personal submarines like the NEMO, typically employ a combination of diving tanks and pumps to control buoyancy and adjust depth,” says Roy Heijdra, a spokesperson for U-Boat Worx.

Ballast tanks are placed on the back of NEMO in order to avoid impeding a passenger’s view of the depths. When its tanks are full, the vessel can sink up to 330 feet (100 meters) underwater.

The sQuba, on the other hand, did not have a ballast system to help it submerge. The driver had to open the car’s door to flood the interior with water, which would make it heavy enough to sink beneath the surface.

In fact, the car was so light that it would automatically resurface without occupants. The designers chose to eliminate the rooftop to cut out excess weight, and provide an emergency escape route for passengers. If the car had a roof, it would have had to be excessively heavy to counteract buoyancy from air in the passenger cabin.

Rinspeed says that the car would have had to weigh an extra 4000 pounds with a roof, giving the sQuba “the land mobility of a turtle.” So much for a sleek sports car; with the added baggage, the sQuba would have transformed into an underwater tank.

From Water to Land?

Theoretically, we could one day have drivable submersibles.

James D. Morgan/Getty Images

Instead of turning a car into a submersible, would it be possible to turn a submersible into a car?

Heijdra says it’s “technically feasible to design future versions of NEMO with wheels for land travel and the capability to transition into water.” But doing so would require some serious research and engineering to overcome significant challenges.

For one, there’s the issue of making sure the vehicle would have the same structural integrity on land and in water – a similar problem that’s faced other waterborne vehicles, like the sQuba and Amphicar. “The design would need to accommodate the weight of the wheels and other land-travel components without compromising its ability to float and maneuver in water,” Heijdra explains.

And the design of NEMO would likely become more complex, since it would need to incorporate two different propulsion systems to move in both settings. The electric motor that helps it maneuver underwater wouldn’t be able to do the same thing for the vehicle on land without some modification. Plus, finding a way to ensure that NEMO wouldn’t get damaged while transitioning from land to sea (or vice versa) would also be important.

Theoretically, we could one day have drivable submersibles. But while many challenges are still present, there’s no saying how soon they’ll become reality.

The Future Floats

As floods become more frequent, cars with emergency floating modes like the YangWang U8 will likely become more common.


Creating a vehicle that can do everything a submarine can, while also doing everything a car can, is a goal engineers haven’t been able to reach yet. But there’s a real possibility that future cars might employ partially amphibious traits. Some manufacturers are already programming vehicles to float.

BYD, the largest electric car manufacturer in the world, recently debuted an amphibious safety feature on its new YangWang U8 SUV. Drivers can activate an emergency flotation mode when in shallow waters. And Elon Musk has repeatedly touted that an upgrade to the Tesla Cybertruck could allow the vehicle to temporarily operate as a boat.

Giving passengers a way to protect themselves and avoid totaling their ca r in the event of an emergency makes good sense. Half the American population lives in a county where a 1-in-100-year flood is at least twice as likely now as it had been in the past so a design trait that helps drivers adapt to floods is only rational.

But a vehicle that’s fully amphibious, like the Amphicar or Bond’s Lotus, likely isn’t in our future. “Some of the earliest thinking behind amphibious vehicles was more [about] ease of getting around,” Moore says. In other words, the first amphibious cars in the 1800s and early 1900s were ultimately designed for navigating a country that did not yet have a vast highway system, and where people relied more on boats to get around. Today, with interstate highways and roads that can take a car to nearly every corner of the U.S., “I don't think amphibious vehicles would ever make a comeback in a mass-production type setting.”

So in the years to come, we likely won’t be driving submersible Bond cars. But we could get something better — a vehicle that uses our current roads and has its own built-in flood insurance.

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