Elon Musk first introduced the idea of Hyperloop back in 2012: a Solar powered, earthquake-stable tube-like transportation device that would never crash, was immune to weather, faster than the speed of sound and, overall, cost-efficient for customers. Following trials in Los Angeles, Hyperloop is currently testing in Abu Dhabi and is looking to implement its first structure in California after receiving a permit to build a structure from LA to San Francisco. Although there are a few difficulties with the Californian government right now, the state is famed for actively pushing forward groundbreaking innovations like this. So, this idea that many thought was crazy and impossible is, in fact, coming to life.
I caught up with Bibop Gabriele Gresta, the Chairman of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, an Italian investor who has been involved in a number of startups over his career. Even he initially thought that this was a crazy idea, after Musk published the white paper to gain crowdsourcing to fund the idea. “I was very sceptical, because I come from a traditional investment background. I have been quite successful in the past, selling my first company when I was 28 and have since created 70 companies through my incubator, and some of them through Initial public offering (IPO). I was arrogant enough to think that I knew how to build startups. But then, after just a month, more than 100 scientists joined the team from companies like Nasa, SpaceX, Tesla and Lockheed Martin to work on the project. For each chapter of the white paper there were three or four alternative solutions and even if Musk didn't identify all of the solutions that were right, there was a list of other solutions for each topic; everybody started to believe that the idea was doable. Then, I came back to my business partner and said 'you're crazy, but I must be crazier because I now think it will work'.”
Then Gresta did what he does best, creating an organisation out of the idea. The established company is now filled with 860 people working from 42 countries. Although people have said that this is the biggest start up on the planet, Gresta believes that it should be seen as “the biggest effort that humanity has done to put together the best minds on the planet,” and he may be correct. He tells me that they will start to build the Hyperloop in less than four years, following over 60,000 hours contributed from engineers. This business has evolved so quickly that Hyperloop has even become a case study at Harvard University. This is exactly what more linear global businesses such as automakers have been trying to achieve for some time now.
A revolutionary transport system must be clean, efficient and inexpensive if it wants to succeed in the long-run. However, what surprises people the most is that a typical transportation business model is extremely unsustainable. Gresta, who had never previously been involved in the transportation industry was also surprised to discover this. “It's a loss for the people that are building the infrastructure and it's a loss for the people travelling in it because it is all based on subsidies,” he says. “There's no one in rail that makes money and if they are declaring profits they are doing so by separating the infrastructure from passenger handling.” He goes on to explain that there is a contribution from the state for each passenger in the rail system, which is something that Hyperloop wants to change. “We immediately realised that we shouldn't make the same mistakes by trying to solve one problem and creating another ten. Embedded in our vision of the world, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is developing an innovation that is not only profitable, but it can actually create a positive impact.”
Gresta will achieve this by combining renewable energy using solar, wind, kinetic energy, regenerative braking and, in some climates where solar panels are inefficient, geothermal energy. This combination can create up to 30% more energy than we consume, which means that Hyperloop would re-inject this excess of energy back into the grid and pay for the infrastructure itself, creating an incredibly sustainable and efficient transport system. In addition to this, the levitating capsules found in the design do not require miles of electrified rail, using just a laminate of aluminum that can be sustained by "eddy current" with two magnets. “When you evacuate the tube from the air, you push the capsule which levitates without using electricity and can float for miles, similar to when in space,” Gresta explains. “Once the capsule is moving, it is extremely cheap to operate. In addition, there is no need to compress and decompress the capsule unlike in planes, which is the main fatigue of air travel. The capsule stays on the vacuum for the majority of its life, there is no friction or mechanical parts and we use the vacuum to preserve the capsule.”
You could argue that there may still be heat generated even at the molecular flow, as you can still have some resistance based on the atoms bumping into the radiator, but even this can be used to harvest further energy inside the capsule. It is a very nicely integrated set of technology that already exists and the potential is now finally being utilised.
So, it is fairly obvious that an innovation like Hyperloop will revolutionise modern transportation over long distances, but how will it be implemented in urban areas? Primarily, the Hyperloop system will operate as a long distance solution, however there is a demand for an innovation like this in urban environments. This can create problems as these dense ecosystems make it difficult to build around. However, Gresta tells me that the company is looking to implement the Hyperloop into smaller urban environments through shorter tubes that link up to central hubs. This will be achievable for Hyperloop Technologies, although the infrastructure will have to be built in and around populated city centres.
“Realistically, especially in the initial period, we need to use the existing right of way: on top of rail or along the side of highways, for example. When you have a bend, you must slow down which means that, although the theoretical speed is 1,223 km per hour, it will rarely reach that,” says Gresta. “You have to constantly maintain passenger comfort and to do that you have to be constantly below 1g of acceleration and deceleration. To achieve this, we use technical tricks to design the speed profile in a way that it is constant. That is for the long distances; inside cities, we can literally substitute the underground as it will be more efficient. We would not have to electrify miles of track and we can even simulate reality around the passenger, something that we do not see today in tube systems.”
Figures show that Hyperloop could deliver one capsule every 30 seconds, which means that the invention could transport 24 million people per tube - a completely new experience. Coupled with a point-to-point solution that utilises autonomous vehicles, transporting customers from their homes in a pressurised car into an airlock Hyperloop tube, we will see an end-to-end solution in the entire ecosystem.
This brings us onto the introduction of autonomous vehicles, as it is likely that we will see a collaborative effort between self driving cars and Hyperloop systems. Major Hyperloop stations will work as a central hub of transportation, similar to an airport, so it is important that there is a solution found in regards to movement to and from these stations. Although the ratio between the tube and the car must remain the same size, Hyperloop Technologies is looking to build a future-proof design. “Looking towards the future, we don't want to be first to substitute an entire infrastructure 20 years down the line,” comments Gresta. “We are designing something that can last a long time with the freedom of scaling up as we move forward. We can build up to seven tubes on the same pylon and we can build larger tunnels to use different capsules when underground.”
The next step for Hyperloop Technologies is to build its first full-scale capsule, partnering with Carbures, a tier 2 manufacturer of Airbus which has over 19 years of experience in air framing. Gresta also tells me that he is currently negotiating with seven countries to build the first full-scale prototype. Although Hyperloop Technologies is steaming ahead of the competition in this regard, he stresses to me that the business cannot become a monopoly and must embrace competition. “I hope that, in the future, there will be 10 different Hyperloops. I hope that the technology will never become a monopoly, that's why I am pushing to have competition. This is such an amazing opportunity for the planet, but this can't be in the hands of one company,” Gresta proclaims. “We are the first, but we are fostering innovation. We will build something bigger than a company, we are a movement.” Through this ideology, the Hyperloop will provide the world with a fully developed system that can transport more than half a billion people a year.
“Boundaries are being created by humans and they are non-existing. People need to wake up, because the new generation is better than that, they want a better planet,” Gresta ensures. “This is the first project where the best scientists around the world have united and that's why we are sharing the benefits of what we have created between our team members because everyone is a stockholder of this company.” The future looks bright for transportation and urban mobility, powered by innovative, start-ups like Hyperloop which are revolutionising the world for the better. This is surely the future.