The first public test of the Hyperloop — a tube- and-pod-based, sub-supersonic transportation system — was little more than an Erector et-style sled racing along a short strip of track in the parched Nevada desert. And it only lasted for a few seconds at 115 mph.
Put simply, there was nothing in the demonstration that even hinted at sleek pods rocketing through low-pressure tubes at almost 700 mph, as Elon Musk described in his original Hyperloop white paper. It was hard to imagine how Hyperloop One, or any company for that matter, would make the leap from these DIY test beds to a functional system that could cut the Los Angeles to San Francisco commute time from a roughly 90-minute flight (or 6-hour drive) to a 30-minute terrestrial tube ride. And yet, back in 2016, we were all pumped. Sub-supersonic pod commuting was just a few years away and the world couldn’t wait to try it.
In those first few years after Elon Musk outlined, in remarkable detail, his vision for a new kind of transportation system that relied on sealed pods, depressurized tubes, and a magnetic levitation and propulsion system, Hyperloop One (now called Virgin Hyperloop One, or VHO), raced to the head of an emerging class of companies developing versions of the technology. Then-CEO Rob Lloyd announced that the company would be moving cargo by 2019 and people by 2021.
“To be honest with you, coming from the transportation sector, we knew right from the beginning that the initial timelines were not realistic”
Of course, that didn’t quite happen.
Thus far, all of the Hyperloop companies — and there are more than half a dozen of them — have moved neither people nor cargo, and they appear no closer to delivering 690-mph tube-based transportation as a replacement for short-haul flights than they did two years ago.
“To be honest with you, coming from the transportation sector, we knew right from the beginning that the initial timelines were not realistic,” Sebastien Gendron, co-founder and CEO of TransPod, a mostly European-focused Hyperloop company based in Canada, told me recently.
Since those early days, the Hyperloop industry has taken stock and recalibrated. There’s still a strong belief among those in the nascent industry that we’ll be commuting on Hyperloop systems where we might normally rely on commuter planes or bullet trains, but most of the companies I spoke to agree that it won’t happen until the end of the coming decade.
An open field
Musk’s decision to create an elaborate blueprint and then open source it to a world of entrepreneurs was intended to help spur innovation. It did, in a way. But, in the early going, companies like Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) appeared to be just as focused on the optics of competition as they were on creating feasible sub-supersonic transportation systems.
Hyperloop One, in particular, sustained an epic meltdown in the early going with bombastic leadership, infighting, lawsuits, and more. It all threatened to destroy the company and stall progress in the technology. At the same time, HTT’s decision to crowdsource its resources left many wondering if it were even possible to build such a next-gen commuter system.
A 2017 cash infusion from Richard Branson and rebranding of Hyperloop One to Virgin Hyperloop One helped right the Hyperloop One ship. It also helped that among those still standing was Josh Giegel, employee number one and now the enterprise’s CTO. The current CEO is Jay Walder, formerly of Motivate, the bicycle sharing/rental company.
Those inside today’s Virgin Hyperloop One acknowledge an important change from a startup-y entrepreneurial enterprise with some really great technology to “a mass transportation company,” as Ryan Kelly, Virgin Hyperloop One’s head of marketing and communications, puts it.
The shift means less focus on demonstrations of the sort I saw in Nevada a few years ago and more on working with local governments and private industry to get a reliable system up and running. “So, it is different; it’s an evolution of what we were doing before,” says Kelly.
It’s not unusual for similar product ideas from multiple companies to rise up at the same time, but rarely do you see so much consistency in approach. Virtually all the Hyperloop companies I spoke to are using the same or very similar technologies. Part of that has to do with the source material. Each company started with Musk’s white paper, concepts, and drawings.
All — including HTT, TransPod, and VHO — are building or designing pressurized tubes with pods that run on some sort of magnetic levitation and propulsion system. There are no jet engines, turbines, or wind tunnels. The differences come down to some tube and pod sizes, number of passengers per pod, and, in particular, smaller technical patents that adjust for issues in some of the agreed upon Hyperloop system components.
TransPod is focusing on issues surrounding the maglev (aka magnetic levitation) propulsion system. Musk’s original concept — and even other systems that use magnetic levitation, like the Tobu Kyuryo Line in Japan — suffer from the same pitfalls. According to Gendron, the cost per kilometer to build Hyperloop tracks and systems is still too high. “Also, there are some issues with the switching mechanism,” he says. “A railway track takes seconds; maglev time takes minutes,” he says.
Switching, which on a traditional railroad diverts a train to a different track, uses a split-second track-switching mechanism. If you’ve ever built a model railroad system, you’ve seen them in action. I found a video of a maglev railway’s switch system and watched in disbelief as a giant section of concrete shifted slowly from one track to another. This is, apparently, to accommodate the magnets, which are integrated into the concrete structure, as opposed to a traditional railway system where switching only requires moving and aligning metal rails.
Gendron explained that, if not solved, this will constrain ridership and flow. The other option is to build a closed loop route that never diverts to another destination. TransPod, however, has a patent to address this issue and another one that revolves around delivering the requisite energy to propel the system.
While VHO and TransPod work methodically on solving core Hyperloop issues and readying commuter build-outs, HTT’s unorthodox approach to building a transportation company has drawn its share of criticism. Instead of hundreds of employees, HTT relied for years on hundreds of contributors from 40-odd countries around the world, all working for stock options. “We don’t think that model works — think we have to have dedicated people for this to work,” says VHO’s Kelly.
In recent years, HTT has shifted to more of a hybrid with both employees and contractors. (HTT would not reveal the actual numbers.) It, too, has been collecting patents, including one for passive magnetic levitation, and it built its own pod.
The pod development process is as confusing as almost every other part of Hyperloop development. Virtually all the Hyperloop companies are designing and building their own pods, and it’s unlikely that a pod built for one Hyperloop system will work in another.
“Our pods are made out of similar structure as an aircraft fuselage,” says TransPod’s Gendron. The final design could be the size of a train car or a bus. TransPod is currently engaged with regulatory bodies to get its design certified and safe.
Last year’s winning design from the Technical University of Munich’s WARR (short for the German phrase Wissenschaftliche Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Raketentechnik und Raumfahrt, which in English means Scientific Workgroup for Rocketry and Spaceflight) student team raced to a record-breaking 290 mph. While returning teams will build on last year’s successes, they will face a pair of new challenges: Each pod now has to have its own communication system and, unlike in previous pod competitions, they have to figure out how to decelerate their pod designs, which can range in weight from 1,800 pounds to as small as 66 pounds.
It’s exciting and fun — and mostly unrelated to the Hyperloop industry.
“Don’t know if there’s lots of value out of that, however, [I] can’t say it’s unrelated,” says TransPod’s Gendron, who appreciates the contest’s Hyperloop promotional value.
VHO’s Kelly called the contest “great fun for engineering students” and said some of these students look to VHO to continue their Hyperloop careers.
However, Hyperloop industry executives tell me that what these students are building is extremely different from the pod prototypes they’re working on.
“The idea that they would influence our design, I don’t think is applicable,” says Kelly.
A different tunnel
Even as Hyperloop companies appreciate the visibility SpaceX’s yearly competition brings to the Hyperloop industry, the less-than-clear definition of a Hyperloop system is generating frustration.
After the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration released a joint feasibility study on the Boring Company’s Washington, D.C., to Baltimore Loop Project, some inaccurately described it as a “Hyperloop” project.
Instead of tubes, Boring’s Loop projects promise depressurized, underground tunnels, which, like Hyperloop, could replace some short-distance flights. But they will mostly aim to help alleviate congestion in commuter hubs like D.C. and Baltimore, along with Chicago and Las Vegas.
VHO’s Kelly says the feasibility study does a nice job of highlighting “the complementary nature” of what Hyperloop and Boring are trying to do. But he wanted to make it clear that there is an order of magnitude difference between the transportation platforms.
Hyperloop systems are designed to reach max speeds just below the speed of sound. (Think well over 600 mph.) Boring’s Loop, which may have pods or Tesla all-electric cars on special tracks and platforms, will offer a max speed of roughly 200 mph.
“Boring company tunnels are sealed to five atmospheres. So, they are absolutely designed to support Hyperloop from the beginning,” says Musk.
VHO will move up to 12,000 people per hour. Boring might move 1,000 people per day. “Boring, it’s almost like adding another lane to the highway,” he says. “That’s just not what we’re trying to do.”
Elon Musk, however, sees things differently. He told me via email that Boring is ready for more.
“Boring company tunnels are sealed to five atmospheres. So, they are absolutely designed to support Hyperloop from the beginning,” says Musk, adding, “I hope others are successful with either Hyperloop or other new forms of transport.”
As various Hyperloop executives and Hyperloop-adjacent organizations walked me through their technologies and ethos, they also shared their new timelines for Hyperloop transportation system rollouts. Months have turned into years, and it’s clear I won’t be riding a Hyperloop system between New York and D.C. — or any other cities — any time soon.
Each company still has to build a larger test track, usually between 10 and 11 kilometers long. They’ll use these tracks to acquire certification. Virgin Hyperloop One hopes to be certified by 2020 and complete a Hyperloop build in India — for a Mumbai to Pune run — by late 2028 or 2029.
TransPod plans to build a test track between 2022 and 2023 and hopes to have one full line completed sometime between 2025 and 2030. It’s also in discussions with the Canadian government to build a 10-kilometer track between Calgary and Edmonton. HTT may have a kilometer-long operational tube in Abu Dhabi ready in time for the 2020 Expo.
All of these companies are working closely with local governments to gain the proper certifications, clearances, and land rights. Like VHO, they’ve had some success in states and countries around the world. But it wasn’t until recently that the U.S. government threw its considerable weight behind Hyperloop transportation platforms.
At SXSW 2019 in Austin, Texas, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced the formation of the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology Council (NETT Council). It’s an internal group and is not solely devoted to Hyperloop technologies. Secretary Chao said at the time, “New technologies increasingly straddle more than one mode of transportation, so I’ve signed an order creating a new internal Department council to better coordinate the review of innovations that have multi-modal applications.”
There’s also a limit to the influence the Department of Transportation can have over any Hyperloop project since the agency doesn’t, according to a DOT spokesperson, dictate priorities for state government or industry stakeholders.
There are 11 different operating administrations within the DOT, each with its own jurisdiction and regulatory approvals. Not surprisingly, Loop and Hyperloop transportation systems do not necessarily fit neatly into this structure, according to an agency spokesperson. As DOT identifies projects that raise cross-agency questions and concerns, the NETT Council will establish working groups comprised of experts from throughout the department who will study the technologies and make environmental and safety-related recommendations.
For now, though, the agency has nothing to say about the long-term viability of any of these new transportation systems. Even so, VHO is excited about the existence of the NETT Council.
“It’s a huge step,” says VHO’s Kelly, adding that it’s an indication that the U.S. wants to own this technology.
As far as council goals, Kelly admits they are fairly broad: “[It’s] how to regulate and bring new modes of transportation, new forms that didn’t exist 50 years ago, how to retrofit for [the] future.”
The public/private partnership nature of virtually all Hyperloop projects is critical to their development, construction, and launch. Unlike the early days of Hyperloop, when each company touted its latest breakthrough and asked local governments for the right to build test beds in their mostly unpopulated neighborhoods, today’s Hyperloop companies are working more in the mold of traditional transportation system providers, and letting local governments take the lead on these transportation initiatives. “It’s really their project. We’re the tech provider,” says Kelly.
Unlike other transportation disruptors — like rideshare apps and scooters — Hyperloops are always going to be massive infrastructure projects. “You can’t drop a Hyperloop system in the middle of your city and ask for forgiveness later.”