Three new and radical bus concepts were unveiled in Santa Monica this morning as part of the third annual AltCar Expo. The bus of the future contest is an exercise in what's possible down the road, but it's also very timely: public transportation ridership in Santa Monica is up seven percent compared to last year.

The judges were looking at a lot of different aspects of making a better bus. As one brochure describing the contest explained, "tomorrow's buses need to be sleeker, sexier, environmentally-friendly, customized for maximum comfort and responsive to all the different ways people want to use transit." No small task.

Three students from the Art Center College of Design were selected to have their big bus dreams as finalists in the competition. These are fanciful concepts, not product specifications for tomorrow's factory output. The contest focuses not just on sustainability, but also on what riders in 20 or 30 years will require from their buses.

First up, from Gabriel Wartofsky, is the Icon Bus. Wartofsky said he wanted to translate the well-known London double-decker design into something a little more California, so his sleek concept provides a lot of window space to check out the beach or the mountain views here in Santa Monica. As for the green angle, the Icon Bus is designed to be a Positive Emissions Vehicle, which means that there are TiOx gills to eat ozone in the oxygen and it is built using part made from sequestered CO2. Crazy, but why not? The Icon Bus won the Sustainability Award from the judges.

My favorite of the bunch is Giuseppe Fillippone's Cougar Bus, which is designed around a cat-like skeleton from which passenger pods of various sizes hang. During busy times, big pods carry more passengers and during the middle of the day, smaller pods mean less mass moving down the street and so less fuel burned. The Cougar Bus was awarded the Innovation Award.

Lastly, there's Mike Peterson's Clear Volume Bus, which shares the Icon's love of making the outside visible to passengers. Also, the middle section of the bus drops down to curb height to ease the mad dash on and off the bus at each stop. The Clear Volume Bus won two awards, for Branding and Ride-Ability. We should be getting high-res images of these concepts later. For now, though, enjoy these pictures taken at the Big Blue Bus booth.

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