Has Hyperloop One bitten off more than it can chew?
“I don’t want to be remembered as the guy that put a train in a tube” is the quote du jour from Hyperloop One’s Josh Giegel. Giegel and co-founder Shervin Pishevar have been showing off a revised vision for how the future of public transportation will operate that moves far beyond intercity travel. But does this level of futurism run the risk of alienating governments and regulators who just want a cheap alternative to high-speed rail? We sat down with the pair to ask them to justify their even more utopian vision for the future of travel.
The company’s latest pitch video demonstrates this, showing how a route between Dubai and Abu Dhabi would work. In it, an Abu Dhabi-based individual is reminded that he needs to be back in Dubai within half an hour. Eschewing the two-hour drive between the pair, he heads to the Hyperloop Portal — the company’s name for a station — and checks into a cube-shaped pod capable of seating six people. The pod then drives to the dock, where clusters of four pods are installed inside a capsule, which is then sent into the tube.
“We looked at what it’s like to walk into a station,” Giegel explained, “and if we had to reinvent something, let’s reinvent all the things you hate.” So rather than waiting on a long, cold, crowded train platform and piling into a carriage via two doors, you enter a pod with six to 10 other people. The engineer continued, “Imagine an airplane and think about all those hundreds of people getting into one door. This effectively gives you four doors.” The method also reduces the number of airlocks you need between the capsule and the tube, making it easier to maintain Hyperloop’s zero-pressure environment.
This modularity also promises to make the station’s footprint smaller, because the concept is based on a series of concentric circles. Passengers will enter a circular hall with pod doors lining the walls, and the vehicles will then drive around and down (or up) to the Hyperloop dock. Pishevar says that the design “takes up a lot less real estate,” compared to the long, flat platforms you get with existing train infrastructure. That means it’s a little more feasible — on paper, at least — to build them slap-bang in the middle of cities or by points of interest.
It’s the other end of the journey, the component dubbed the “last mile” between the station and your home, that Hyperloop is now looking to conquer. In the concept video, the Dubai-to-Abu-Dhabi pod breaks out of its capsule at the Burj Khalifa portal and drives on the road. The windowless, mirrored cube glides down the highway — autonomously, obviously — to carry the person to his final destination. Sure, it’s a concept video, but there’s a whiff of the ridiculousness that threatens to derail the company’s ambitions.
To start, Hyperloop One has spent the past few years assembling a team of engineers to build a high-speed train in a tube. So why do its leaders think they can, out of nowhere, also create a self-driving, road-ready vehicle? Pishevar says that autonomous vehicles “aren’t rocket science,” and that the technology is quickly “becoming a commodity.” The implication is that rather than developing the tools in-house, Hyperloop One will buy the tech off the shelf.
Pishevar also hopes the pods will be capacious enough to accommodate commercial self-driving cars in the not-too-distant future. The billionaire says he sees Hyperloop as a “platform and as an API, where technologies can plug into the network.” For instance, a self-driving Uber or Tesla could drive into a street-level pod and come out the other end. Giegel describes Hyperloop’s potential as a “range extender,” adding that he “wouldn’t take an Uber from Lisbon to Madrid, but that [he] could do that with an Uber and Hyperloop.”
The new system incorporates an order of magnitude more moving parts than outlined in Elon Musk’s original white paper. After all, you now have hundreds — if not thousands — of pods, the majority of which will need to be ready for driving on the road. From an engineering standpoint, that’s a lot of extra complexity that the company will now be responsible for maintaining. But Giegel doesn’t seem too worried about it, saying that “there’s a little more complexity, but the tech that’s gone into these things has been around for some time.”
The concern must be that Giegel and Pishevar have bitten more than they can chew, despite their obvious confidence. Hyperloop One promises that its technology will deliver “airline speeds for the price of a bus ticket” and that this change in direction won’t affect that. But it’s hard not to be concerned that governments, regulators and investors will be put off by the company’s ever-wider utopianism. That said, the company is currently building Dev Loop — its prototype Hyperloop — in North Las Vegas, and a successful demonstration would go a long way toward ensuring this doesn’t remain a fanciful what-if.