It’s hard to imagine a world in which air travel has been all but replaced, or to envision a Houston-Dallas super city of 18 million, or that someone could leave Edinburgh at 3 p.m. and be in London within an hour for tea. But in a pod magnetically levitating above a track and electrically propelled through a low-pressure tube at around 670 mph that just might be the far future of transportation for passengers and freight.
Hyperloop, the dazzling mashup of existing technologies introduced to the world in 2013 by SpaceX and Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk, is gaining global momentum through a leading developer of the system, Los Angeles-based Virgin Hyperloop One, also known as Hyperloop One. Its hopes bolstered by a recent record-braking test run at 240 mph, and rejuvenated by a $50 million cash infusion and the naming of investment mogul Sir Richard Branson as chairman, Hyperloop One looks to have operational systems by 2021.
But even as the company’s battalion of engineers works to turn today’s vision into tomorrow’s reality, a traditional obstacle, one seemingly as old as civilization itself, stands front and center — funding, or lack thereof. Even Hyperloop One concedes that the technology will outpace the dollars. But that has stopped neither them nor their competitors, Los Angeles-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Inc.; Los Angeles-based Arrivo; and Musk’s own The Boring Company. So for now, it’s all about research and development, trial and error, and perhaps the biggest long-term piece of all — public awareness, and broad-ranging acceptance of, hyperloop as a viable form of transportation.
With the horizon filled with such promise, it should come as no surprise that Hyperloop One, founded in 2014, doesn’t have a problem recruiting some of the finest minds in the world.
Look no further than Anita Sengupta, who joined the company last year. A Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, Sengupta spent 16 years at NASA, where, among other things, she led the Mars Curiosity Rover Supersonic Parachute Decelerator. A NASA astronaut finalist candidate last year, Sengupta said her move to Hyperloop was made for a simple reason: “I was looking for a new challenge.”
As the senior vice president of systems engineering, her role is to coordinate and understand the interface among the various elements of hyperloop — the system’s pod, vacuum tube, civil infrastructure, and regulatory compliance.
Referring to the fact that hyperloop touches so many different areas — cities, governments, mega-regions, science, engineering — and that it has the potential to change the world, Sengputa said that hyperloop is an exciting challenge in that it is “far more complicated” than sending spacecraft to Mars.
Having kicked off in May 2016, the global challenge sponsored by Hyperloop One ignited vast interest — 2,600 teams registered — with routes selected in five countries, and with entrants from places as diverse as China, Israel, Estonia, and Spain. In terms of the challenge, the U.S. leads the pack, and is joined by other Top 10 economies such as Canada, the U.K., and India.
Since the global challenge, a number of public-private coalitions have emerged supporting hyperloop. Most recently, the Kansas City-to-St. Louis route, developed after the global challenge concluded, has started a feasibility study. Virgin Hyperloop One, Black & Veatch, and the University of Missouri System are partnering to analyze the technical alignment as well as the potential economic impact and benefits of integrating hyperloop into the I-70 corridor connecting Kansas City, Columbia, and St. Louis.
It seems as if a tipping point has either been reached or will soon be reached. “I see a yearning for new transportation,” Sengupta said.
While hyperloop is no doubt groundbreaking, engineers at the company are not necessarily looking to reinvent the wheel. As the system’s standards are being developed, hyperloop is fact-finding in other industries — aviation, rail, spacecraft, and autonomous vehicles — to find pre-existing standards that can be applied to hyperloop. The end goal, Sengupta said, is to create an international standard.
Bullish on the development of the technology, Sengupta said hyperloop could be ready within five years. Funding to implement hyperloop, predictably, could take much longer. If and when a system were ever funded, it would likely have to be through a public-private partnership (P3), in which the private sector takes the investment risk in return for the reward.
“That’s the way you do it,” she said.
In regard to cost, the figures are hard to nail down. A hyperloop system has never been built, so there’s no real benchmark. Musk’s original estimates for a proposed route from Los Angeles to San Francisco — $6 billion for a passenger system — were universally panned as too low. Looking at what has already been built, or what is in the process of being built, it’s certain the price tag for domestic hyperloop, which could utilize both elevated tracks and bored tunnels, would be nothing short of galactic.
The bullet train in California, for example, is currently projected to cost about $64 billion. In Seattle, a 1.7-mile tunnel beneath downtown cost around $3.2 billion. And in New York, a new tunnel under the Hudson River could cost as much as $11.1 billion, according to a story published last year in The New York Times.
Alon Levy, a mathematician and full-time transit journalist based in Paris, has followed hyperloop since Musk’s whitepaper was released in 2013. A critic of the cost estimate then, Levy has yet to relinquish his view that hyperloop is just too expensive. Backed by an encyclopedic knowledge of advanced transit systems around the world, Levy said hyperloop is probably going to be built over a span of 50 to 100 years, with a country’s ability to afford and maintain infrastructure growing over decades, similar to how traditional rail systems were developed in the U.S. and across the world.
When asked if the cost issues can be solved in the foreseeable future, Levy, perhaps voicing the doubts of many, said, “I don’t know.”
In Washington, D.C., hyperloop, and more generally intelligent transportation, has found a strong voice. Shailen Bhatt, who in October 2017 was named president and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America), is a relentless advocate for new-generation technology. He also has the credentials to support his enthusiasm.
Before joining ITS America, he served as the executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, one of the most progressive departments in the country that has already used P3s for major infrastructure, deployed the Autonomous Impact Protection Vehicle, and was instrumental in creating one of the 10 hyperloop routes — from Cheyenne to Pueblo — chosen in the global challenge.
Bhatt, who says intelligent transportation can create the greatest disruption since the Industrial Revolution, keeps a hectic schedule, and is literally globetrotting in his effort to share knowledge, learn from others, and build the international network that intelligent transportation will need if it is to thrive. Copenhagen, Japan, China, and Singapore — Bhatt has a seat at the table.
“Anytime you say you’ve deployed something, that gives you credibility, but you have to curate that credibility to keep it,” he said.
Just looking at the U.S., Bhatt sees worlds of potential — safety, speed, reduced pollution and traffic, to name a few — but he also sees many obstacles that must be overcome. One of those is a cultural inertia, elephantine in its proportions, that must be addressed.
“We obviously have a car addiction in the U.S., and 50 years of post-war auto-centric urban design,” he said. “Everyone should recognize that our solution is not more roads.”
Like Sengupta, Bhatt sees the defining challenge as that of money. And also like Sengupta, he sees the private sector as essential partners in the rise of hyperloop and intelligent transportation.
“The challenge is going to be funding,” he said. “There’s no way the public sector solely funds this.”
The list of private companies already on board with intelligent transportation is impressive, as is the list of those from public institutions. Representatives from GM, Toyota, the transportation departments from Pennsylvania and New York City, as well as powerhouse schools such as UC Berkeley, Texas A&M, and Virginia Tech, sit on the ITS America board of directors.
And among the agency’s advocacy trust are AAA, Qualcomm, Panasonic, State Farm, Caltrans, and the transportation departments from the states of Michigan, Florida, Arizona, and Texas, among others.
In reference to the private sector, Bhatt said, “They are going full bore. Everybody is excited about new technology. The future is not with fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine. It’s electrification.”
Bhatt said the life cycle of hyperloop and intelligent transportation could wind up mirroring that of automobiles, trains, and airplanes. All of those modes of transportation have been around for a century, and all are still relevant, but the technology has undergone a constant progression of improvement, from the Model A to the Tesla, from the Wright Brothers to Boeing, and from steam locomotives to bullet trains in France, China, and Japan.
“I don’t think it will become obsolete,” he said, referring to magnetic levitation and autonomous vehicles. “I think it will go through iterations. It will get better and more efficient.”
There were about 1.2 million road traffic deaths in 2013, according to the World Health Organization, and in the United States, more than 37,000 motor vehicle deaths were recorded in 2016, the deadliest year in a decade, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Citing those statistics, Bhatt, a former head of two DOTs, said, “It’s a huge societal cost.”
For him, intelligent transportation is not just about taking goods and people from one place to the other, but about eliminating the human suffering that transportation can cause.
“This is not about technology for technology’s sake,” he said. “This is about how we take technology and make people’s lives better.”
That’s certainly the sentiment in Columbus, Ohio, where regional planners are still giddy about finishing in the top 10 of the hyperloop global challenge. In the Midwest, a route from Pittsburgh to Chicago via Columbus, by 2040, has the potential to connect more than 17 million people over 975 miles in just an hour-and-a-half.
“It’s amazing that a route through the Midwest would capture attention in a global competition, but why not us?” said Thea J. Walsh, director of transportation systems and funding for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.
She said planners were already looking into a possible passenger rail between Columbus and Chicago, so a lot of base research was already there. Walsh said it just had to be interpreted in a different way.
Even though she is excited about hyperloop, she’s also realistic about the situation. There are currently no federal standards for something like hyperloop, and putting them together will take time. Once they are in place, they will affect the entire industry.
“Standards will dictate the cost,” Walsh said. “The higher the quality, the higher the cost, and it will determine who wants to invest in the program.”
The good news is that talk of standards is already well under way.
On Jan. 7, representatives from state DOTs in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Illinois, and Missouri met in Washington, D.C., to discuss implementation of hyperloop technology, Walsh said. Specifically, the group convened to begin discussions regarding how hyperloop corridor approvals could be advanced in preparation for integrating this mode into the nation’s transportation system. Topics of discussion included feasibility study scopes, regulation and policy standards, federal oversight, and standard messaging to the public about what the technology entails and how the different states are collaborating to ensure consistency in standards, Walsh said.
The group agreed to continue the discussion and will strive to meet at least once more in 2018.
On Jan. 9, Walsh’s agency organized a visit for central Ohio and southwestern Pennsylvania leaders to tour the Virgin Hyperloop One test site in Nevada. The group got a closer look at the technology, the physical infrastructure, and met with the scientists and engineers working to develop it, Walsh said.
“Until we’re moving people and freight on this corridor in a new way, we’ll be talking about [hyperloop],” Walsh said. “And then we’ll be talking about maintaining it. It will continue to be in the conversation.”
In mid-February, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) moved the conversation to northern Ohio when it announced agreements with the North Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) and Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) to begin a feasibility study for the Great Lakes region, starting with a Cleveland-to-Chicago route.
“Regulations are the ultimate barrier for hyperloop implementation,” said Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of HTT, “and we are excited to build the first real public-private partnership to bring hyperloop travel to the U.S.”
While not directly related to hyperloop and intelligent transportation, it is noteworthy that Musk successfully launched the world’s most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy, into space on Feb. 6. A big step toward Musk’s ultimate goal of putting people on Mars, the Falcon Heavy launch, which featured two boosters touching back down on earth for reuse, was a global demonstration of just how successful Musk technology can be. With Musk as the progenitor, anything, it seems, is possible.
In the UK, where two hyperloop routes placed in the global challenge top 10, spirits are high. Adam Anyszewski, an electrical and mechanical engineering student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, is the managing director of team HYPED, creator of the proposed route from Edinburgh to London by way of Birmingham and Manchester — a route that covers 414 miles in 50 minutes and links a metropolitan population of about 17 million.
In a twist, the HYPED team is not just populated with engineering students. Including members from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, HYPED is comprised of physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, architects, business people, economists, and those studying politics and law. As they grapple with the technology side of the equation, members of HYPED must also consider an ongoing political circumstance that could wind up having huge implications for the UK — Brexit, the UK’s exit from the European Union.
“Brexit is not making things any easier, but we’re not afraid the need for hyperloop will disappear,” Anyszewski said.
Looking at it from another vantage point, Brexit might actually be good for hyperloop’s chances. As an independent country looking to compete in the global market, hyperloop could ultimately make a place like the UK attractive for business and investments, Anyszewski said.
For hyperloop to make sense to regular people, it’s key that the new technology be placed in context, that it ties into existing infrastructure and emerging systems such as autonomous vehicles. Like Bhatt, Anyszewski is not blinded by idealism. He knows creating widespread public awareness will be tough, and that entrenched transportation interests might not embrace hyperloop and other forms of intelligent transportation.
Still, he sees nothing but possibilities. At 23, Anyszewski, a Polish national, is seemingly at the ideal age to not only embrace new ideas and transformative technology, but to make things happen. As a full-time student, working on hyperloop is his “second job,” a job that might lead to a lifelong career — instead of chasing Big Data, biotech, or artificial intelligence.
“It’s something that gets me excited,” Anyszewski said. “I’m in it to make a difference in the way people live.”
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Key board members: Sir Richard Branson, His Excellency Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem
Key partners: Parsons, ARUP
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Key members: Nima Bahrami, Jadon Smith, Knut Sauer, Andrew Liu, William Mulholland, David Pendergast
Key partners: Colorado Department of Transportation, AECOM
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Noteworthy: A global network of crowd-sourced talent Innovation center in Toulouse, France
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Noteworthy: Low-cost tunnels and high-speed underground transport; Proposed tunnels in metro Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. to Baltimore
Key member: Elon Musk
Key partner: City of Los Angeles