All new technology startups sell their wares on the proviso that they will make our lives easier, less complicated and more streamlined, but very few startups are trading time itself. You may already have heard and read about hyperloop, the high-speed, pod-in-a-tube transport that Elon Musk mused over in between taking us to Mars and transforming the automotive and energy industries. But what you probably don’t know is that one of the companies at the forefront of the hyperloop revolution doesn’t see itself as selling a new transportation at all. “We don’t sell cars, boats, trains, or planes. We sell time,” said president of engineering and co-founder at Hyperloop One, Josh Giegel.
Hyperloop One has come a long way in a very short amount of time. Two years ago, Giegel was sat in a garage with his co-founder and Hyperloop One’s executive chairman, Shervin Pishevar. Having quit his job and relying on the financial support of his wife to work full time on the new technology, very few would have predicted that at the beginning of this year, Hyperloop One would have 200 people working at four different sites, which includes a test site out in the Nevada desert where a bare-metal sled was shot down a short track at 2.4Gs, achieving zero to 100mph in 1.9 seconds.
Despite enjoying a meteoric rise, Hyperloop One has a long way to go before it becomes capable of transporting people from city to city via ultra-fast, high-speed networks. But however long hyperloop takes to realise, it is nothing compared to the potential time it could save us. Imagine if a commute from New York to Washington or Birmingham to London could be done in the same time it takes to travel a few tube stops now. What would that mean for your life outside work? How would that change our cities if living as close as possible to a city centre was no longer a necessity? For industry, what if hyperloop could free up ports for other uses such as housing or recreational spaces? Make no mistake, whether you’re interested in time or money, hyperloop could be the answer.
When most people think about what travelling by hyperloop will be like, they imagine a faster version of rail. But that definition limits the scope of Hyperloop One. “We’re not a train in a tube company anymore,” says Giegel. “What we’re trying to really put across is that we’re an autonomous mobility company that is really looking towards integrating into the autonomous future.”
What we’re trying to really put across is that we’re an autonomous mobility company that is really looking towards integrating into the autonomous future
With Hyperloop One your commute would look something like this. You order an autonomous car via a mobile app. The company you do this with doesn’t really matter; you can be picked up by Hyperloop’s autonomous vehicles, but if you prefer Uber then use Uber; if you have your own autonomous Tesla then you can use that. This will then transport you to a hyperloop portal, and from there you can travel from city to city in a matter of minutes. Once you’ve reached your chosen city, your vehicle will uncouple from hyperloop and take you on to your final destination. “With a simple software push you can basically make anything hyperloop enabled,” says Giegel. “So we’re really extending it to go door-to-door faster than you’ve gone before.”
Taking people from door to door makes Hyperloop One an attractive proposition for technophiles and investors alike, but you would think it also puts hyperloop travel out of the price of ordinary people. But Hyperloop One’s creators claim that they are intending for this form of travel to be available to “Joe everyman”. The kind of pricing that the company has in mind is evident from its slogan: “The speed of an airplane, the convenience of a metro, the comfort of an elevator, the cost of a bus ticket”.
On the waterfront
Before Hyperloop One can integrate itself into the autonomous future, its initial network will be more concerned with transporting cargo than passengers. This is a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by one of the biggest global ports operators, DP World, who invested $50m in Hyperloop One last year and became a board member of the company. “The vision at the beginning when we founded this company was really to disrupt the efficiency and footprint of cargo in the world,” says Pishevar. “To have DP World as a partner means a lot.”
Like its ambitious plans for autonomous transportation, Hyperloop One’s interest in this sector isn’t as simple as speeding up current technology. “Most ports around the world are at full capacity and companies like DP World have spent millions of dollars buying land and adding to ports because there’s no more room. Hyperloop completely unlocks that,” says Pishevar. “You can unlock billions of dollars of waterfront property for redevelopment. If you multiply that kind of opportunity by all the ports in the world you’re talking about trillions of dollars of value unlocked.”
To give an idea of the scale of change Hyperloop is imagining, DP World’s flagship facility is the Port of Jebel Ali in Dubai. It’s one of the few man-made objects that are visible from space, and handles anywhere between 18 and 19 million TEUs (20-foot-long cargo containers). The proposal by Hyperloop One is to move these kinds of ports offshore and have hyperloop travel between the coastline and the port to transport cargo containers. Moving ports into the ocean would clear up land on the coastline, opening up the potential for a huge real-estate boom, which could be worth trillions of dollars.
Redesigning cities and nations
Hyperloop’s ability to be housed underwater or underground means that it could be the catalyst for sweeping changes to city centres. “When I look out at our cities I see a lot of decaying infrastructure. The world is not investing in new infrastructure at the rate that it should, so there’s a lot of economic potential and human potential to unlock by redesigning cities from the ground up,” says Pishevar. “Building Hyperloop between Dubai and Abu Dhabi it takes it [the journey time] to twelve minutes versus two and a half hours, so when you have that kind of change where you live and where you work completely change. It unlocks time. It frees you from time and space. In that case there is the real opportunity to re-terraform our planet: to redesign cities to be green, and to design cities not around cars anymore but around people.”
The cost of hyperloop, both to consumers and for cities to install, is relatively cheap, so it’s not unrealistic to think that cities would want to redesign themselves around the technology, and removing the need for cars is going to boost any city’s eco-credentials. However, it’s not just cities that could benefit from embracing the technology. Developing nations could also use the technology to stimulate growth. “I think one of the interesting things you can do is you can essentially have developing countries leapfrog a generation with technology,” says Giegel. “Instead of driving wire communications with telephone poles they went straight to cell signals, so instead of building high-speed rail or an infrastructure like that you can switch to a hyperloop and enable much higher capacity.”
Replacing horse travel
Hyperloop’s potential benefits are indisputable, and Hyperloop One has made an impressive rise in the last two years, but it would be disingenuous to say that the past two years have been trouble-free. Former co-founder Brogan BamBrogan (and with a name like that it’s a travesty he’s no longer involved by the way) and several other former employees brought a lawsuit against Hyperloop One claiming the technology was being “strangled” by the venture capitalists who had majority control of the company. There was also a personal accusation made against Pishevar that he was using company money to overpay a public relations consultant, employed at Hyperloop One, he was dating at the time. Hyperloop One countersued, and accused BamBrogan and the other former employees of launching a smear campaign with the intention of undermining the work being undertaken.
There have also been accusations that Hyperloop One has copied ideas – to which Giegel says “it’s hard to copy something when the other people haven’t built anything to copy yet” – as well as the standard claims, experienced by most transport start-ups, that their ideas cost too much money to ever come to fruition.
These distractions certainly aren’t going to help hyperloop become a reality anytime soon. But the potential benefits are so great that it’s worth pushing ahead with the technology. Hyperloop One realises this, some of the major cargo companies in the world realise this, and once Hyperloop One showcases the world’s first full scale working hyperloop by the end of 2017’s first quarter, the public may well realise this as well. As Pishevar says: “In 20 years, the vision is the whole world will be interconnected by hyperloop. At that point travelling by plane will seem like travelling by horse to get somewhere, except it’s a lot more dangerous. I think it will become the transportation for the world.”