Opinion

opinion | Dirk Ahlborn

Here comes the Hyperloop

rendering by Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Congestion is, by little exaggeration, one of the largest problems humanity has to solve right now, and the stakes for solving it couldn’t be higher.

In Beijing, for example, there are days when its more than 20 million residents can’t see their hands in front of their faces due to smog. Hours of productivity and, more importantly, hours of quality time with the people we care about are wasted in traffic every day. Major life decisions — where we work, where we go to school, whom we date — are dictated by where we live. Our cities are overflowing.

Unconventional ideas for addressing this challenge are desperately needed. In August 2013, Elon Musk proposed the Hyperloop, a new transportation system able to travel at near the speed of sound. Capsules carrying passengers move through a pathway of reinforced, low-pressure tubes at 760 miles per hour. Current obstacles to travel, such as weather conditions, are eliminated. Plans are underway to start building the first full-scale passenger version in Kings County, Calif., next year.

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When completed, the Hyperloop will be safer, more reliable, and faster than any other current mode of transportation. What’s more, it promises to be energy self-sufficient, profitable, and affordable. The construction costs should be much lower than any existing and proposed railway projects.

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The concept of pneumatic tube travel is not new. Several times throughout history, similar efforts have been explored: The first patent of a vacuum train dates back to 1910, the US government had several prototypes developed in the 1960s, and more recently Swissmetro experimented with this technology. None were ever implemented. Most of these projects were government funded or depended upon single individuals or companies, so when a government changed these projects stopped.

What is different this time? Elon, his hands full at Tesla and SpaceX, needed someone else to take over. JumpStartfund.com, a crowdsourcing platform launched in beta in 2013, was the first to create a commercial Hyperloop venture. An overwhelming number of people on the platform expressed interest. Hyperloop became an opportunity to revolutionize public transportation.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a name chosen by the community, was incorporated in the fall of 2013. More than 200 passionate, skilled professionals from around the world applied to work on the project for at least 10 hours a week in exchange for stock options; around 100 were selected. And we announced in December 2014 that we’d proven the technical and economical feasibility of the Hyperloop system through a rigorous feasibility study — long after the media and public believed the project had been abandoned.

Several prototypes have now been constructed and validated. The full system is ready to be built. It has the ability to utilize existing rights-of-way thanks to the use of pylons. The Hyperloop is weather independent and earthquake safe — and has reduced land acquisition costs as well. It runs on alternative energy sources including solar, wind, and kinetic power.

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As of this writing, HTT has more than 500 team members, including corporate partners like AECOM, the world’s largest construction engineering firm, and Oerlikon, the leading vacuum technology provider, which developed the vacuum system for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Working with HTT’s engineers, Oerlikon has already solved all the necessary technology hurdles to create the Hyperloop’s low-pressure environment. The project has also received backing from several sponsors like Autodesk, Microsoft, and many others, as well as inquiries from governments from around the world asking for a full-scale system.

Beyond levitating a capsule inside of a tube, the team is also figuring out how to alleviate many of the painful aspects that make traveling such a horrid experience today. Reflekt, a leading European firm focused on augmented reality, is creating passenger experiences built around virtual and augmented reality. Some of the world’s leading app developers are working to completely digitize the ticketing and travel booking experience.

This crowd-powered approach is making such progress possible. Participants include psychologists, designers, technologists, and engineers who also work at Facebook, Google, SpaceX, Tesla, Boeing, Airbus, and NASA, to name a few.

Plus, shortly after announcing the results of our feasibility study, other organizations began to form around this new concept of transportation, attracting individuals with amazing backgrounds. As we see it, nothing validates a business more than great competition.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, however, is more than a company — we see ourselves as a movement. And, with team members spread across the United States, Europe, and China, a truly global movement. Anyone in the world who feels they can contribute is welcome to apply. This open approach embraces competition and fosters collaboration with firms and universities that already have critical experience in the right sectors — all while listening to passengers. Even the company’s first land deal came from the community: A developer committed sections of his private land to contribute to making this new mode of transportation a reality.

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And it is working. HTT’s first passenger-ready Hyperloop system will be completed along a 5-mile stretch of California’s Interstate 5 Freeway in Quay Valley by the end of 2018.

Capsules carrying passengers move through reinforced, low-pressure tubes at 760 miles per hour.

Yet it is most likely that the first full intercity and subsequent local Hyperloop systems will be built overseas. Yes, it would be transformative to our travel culture for the Hyperloop to connect an American hub such as Boston to New York or Washington, D.C. For much of Asia, however, access to a high-speed transportation system that is sustainable and profitable is beyond transformative — it is quite simply needed. Megacities in China, India, Indonesia — bursting at the seams with populations of over 10 million or 20 million — face untenable traffic and pollution scenarios. The Hyperloop has a true opportunity to become the continent’s preferred transportation system. We fully expect that America and Europe will follow suit in adopting it shortly thereafter.

Dirk Ahlborn is the CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.