Pipe Dream: Hyperloop One's Plan for High-Speed Transport

"It is a beautiful thing when somebody’s knuckles are bleeding."

The seventh floor of the Newseum in Washington, D.C. was the latest stop for the Hyperloop One roadshow this month, a globe-dotting series of events aimed at presenting ideas for routes for the hyperloop, a still-unproven technology that’s long on promises — “Amazon Prime on steroids” and “physical broadband” are two slogans — but short on full-scale proof, although that’s promised, too.

Some eleven routes were unveiled on April 6 in a city picked for its proximity to politicians, including the allegedly infrastructure-focused president, who reportedly asked for “more information” on the hyperloop in March.

“The eleven routes touched 35 metro areas and 83 million people, including reducing cargo by 6 million trucks a year,” Rob Lloyd, CEO for Hyperloop One, told his assembled audience. “They proved that $1 of infrastructure spend could become $5 of economic value, which is exactly why we’re all here and exactly why we think this impact will be so fantastic.”

Presented under the banner “Vision for America” — a name given to the event by the Los Angeles-based startup with former Cisco Systems executives at the helm — Hyperloop One presented slick, digital kiosks that showed off the routes for proposed hyperloops. With electric blue lines, the routes effortlessly connect cities like Kansas City to St. Louis; Orlando to Miami; Portland to Seattle. There were three proposals — out of some 2,600 submitted to the company last year — from Colorado alone.

The longest of the 11 routes picked as "finalists" by Hyperloop One, this 1,152 route connecting Cheyenne, Wyoming to Houston.

“It’s more competition than friendly,” said Tracy Hughes from one team named Rocky Mountain Hyperloop Consortium, pitching a route from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Houston, when asked about the three teams from Colorado.

“We think we’ve got a pretty good case,” said Travis Boone, an engineer at Aecom and a member of the similarly named but definitely different Rocky Mountain Hyperloop. His group has the official backing of the Colorado Department of Transportation and its director, Shailen Bhatt, who was also in D.C. Bhatt said the group’s plan, and more broadly, Colorado, is “uniquely positioned” for the super-fast tube transport.

Meanwhile, Blake Annenberg of the Colorado Hyperloop, visibly the most junior team in attendance, said: “We’re just happy to be here.” His team was proposing a relatively modest “front range” route through Colorado (although it does have a dedicated subreddit).

Hyperloop One — a company of 250 people based in Los Angeles that expects to grow to 500 by year’s end — invited the media to the second of the two-day event, where those hopeful groups from around the country made their case to Hyperloop One executives for it to conduct a feasibility study for a route in their region, the first step to moving dirt.

Teams told Inverse they weren’t given a timeline on when they’d hear back from Hyperloop One about their proposal, although “before the end of the year” was floated to a few. That was the first day.

The second day featured inspirational speeches from executives, an engineer, and a panel that included Caroline Decker, vice president of government affairs for Amtrak, which presumably, one day, could be made obsolete by the hyperloop.

An early Hyperloop One rendering of how a shipping container might be transported inside a tube.

Wait, What Exactly is the Hyperloop?

At its most fundamental, the hyperloop is a vacuum tube, evaporated to near-zero pounds per square inch, through which a vessel travels forward without having to push any air that would slow it down. Increasing the speed is magnetic levitation — an existing, energy-sucking technology — that importantly wouldn’t be slowed by the friction of rolling wheels. It could go more than 700 mph and create mega regions. Commuting from San Francisco to L.A. every day would be a 35-minute trip, predicted Elon Musk, who thought of the hyperloop and published his “Hyperloop Alpha” whitepaper in August 2013. Musk’s aerospace company, SpaceX, has put on pod design and propulsion competitions since then in a half-sized, six-foot tube outside SpaceX’s L.A. headquarters, for mostly university-based teams. The first hyperloop pod competition was in January and the next hyperloop pod competition is set for August.

But Hyperloop One isn’t involved with those student competitions; this is a business for them, one they need government stakeholders to get behind.

The remarks to the assembled hyperloop teams and media by Lloyd made clear the company’s plan is to treat it like a fast-moving startup, not a science experiment.

“It is a beautiful thing when somebody’s knuckles are bleeding because somebody did the wrong design and it’s fixed that day,” Lloyd said. “And when you do that in your engineering model, you make the incremental speed of perfecting your technology happen in months and quarters instead of years and decades.”

Lloyd showed video of Hyperloop One’s testing facility north of Las Vegas, where the company’s president of engineering, Josh Geigel, himself a former SpaceX engineer, could be seen working on the tube known as “dev loop,” where in “a couple of months,” Lloyd says Hyperloop One will show the public the first full-scale test of a hyperloop.

“In the desert in Nevada, we’ve built the first full-scale hyperloop that we will test at our Kitty Hawk moment," says Shervin Pishevar, Executive Chairman and co-founder of Hyperloop One. No date has been set.

Hyperloop One

“That’s not an image, that’s not a rendering, that’s a photograph from a drone taken a few days ago as we capped the end of that 500 meters of tube and begin the final testing of the world’s first full-scale prototype,” Lloyd said, as a video showed the test tube. (A dusty test of its maglev propulsion was in May 2016.)

Hyperloop One officials have fielded proposals from the north to connect Helsinki with Stockholm and from the south, like as an ambitious plan in the United Arab Emirates that the Wall Street Journal reports might be the world’s first, despite all the activity made in D.C. Dubai, famously, makes the work of Robert Moses look insignificant.

But the event in D.C. was nearly identical to one in February in Delhi, India, where five hyperloop routes are being considered for the country. Up next are events in Amsterdam and London, but Hyperloop One representatives are keeping details close to the vest. It’s all to drum up interest and grassroots support in regions all over, part of something called the “Hyperloop One Global Challenge,” announced in May 2016. Teams submitted their proposals, with the finalists — 35 total, announced in January — being summoned to these showcases. For their part, Lloyd says Hyperloop One came up with its idea for the first-ever hyperloop, too: A route from the Port of Los Angeles in Long Beach some 71 miles inland, a way to move cargo faster, take semi trucks off the 710 freeway, and eliminate some congestion. “That was our idea… and then we asked in May, what other ideas do you all have?” he says.

The crowdsourced project proved enticing to startup-minded people from all over, says Nick Earle, Hyperloop One’s senior vice president of global field operations, and another former Cisco executive.

“We copied the idea from XPrize,” Earle says. “[XPrize founder Peter Diamandis] is on our board and he said ‘why don’t you do it; it’s a fantastic idea.’”

See also: Hyperloop One CEO: “We Will Go Underground”

The open competition also created buy-ins from local state and federal-level politicians, another reason to hold the event in D.C.: “So, now we’re starting to see the alignment of the policy people at the state level and now the policy at people at the federal level,” Earle says.

The pitch.

So while the Newseum was full of venture capitalists, tech enthusiasts, government officials, engineers, and policymakers, it was short on actual, hard news. In addition to there not being a route chosen as the best or most likely, there was also no announcement of a full-scale test of the dev loop in Nevada. There wasn’t even a a panel discussion. But that is exactly what the Hyperloop One showcase is intended to be, Earle says.

‘We roll [these events] around the world,” Earle says. “Each time, we’ll try and coincide it with any news that we have. There was no hard news from the technology point of view, other than the completion of the physical construction, and now we’re going to start the [testing of the dev loop].”

Hyperloop One officials said they were meeting with policymakers in the nation’s capital later in the week. While armed with a revolutionary pitch — “the whole concept of the physical broadband is the really, really big idea,” Earle says — they were saddled with an unproven technology.

The brief remarks Shervin Pishevar, executive chairman and co-founder of Hyperloop One — who usually lets Lloyd, Earle, and Geigel do most of the talking — opened the day’s event, with perhaps the most tangible remarks about the still intangible technology.

“Here’s the new interstate highway,” said the soft-spoken Pishevar. “This is our vision for America, connecting the entire nation within five hours of each other. Cities become metro stops. Freight begins to move. Ports can move inland.”

With climate change and inarguably rising sea levels, Hyperloop One’s “physical broadband” might just be needed before we think.

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