Getting from A to B on an increasingly crowded planet is becoming harder and more stressful. City streets are snarled with polluting traffic jams. Airport security checks add delays and angst to air travel. And travel by train, especially in car-crazy California, leaves much to be desired.
All of which are arguments for tech billionaire Elon Musk‘s dream of a “hyperloop” transportation system that would whisk passengers along at speeds of 760 mph. The revolutionary form of passenger and freight transportation would propel a pod-like vehicle through a near-vacuum tube at airline speeds using a technology called passive magnetic levitation (or maglev).
In a keynote address at a recent Silicon Beach Fest event in downtown Los Angeles, Ahlborn said the train industry is ripe for disruption, having remained essentially unchanged for 100 years. That’s certainly true in California, where it takes close to 12 hours by rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco. With a hyperloop system, the same 380-mile journey would take just 34 minutes.
That’s twice as fast as Japan’s new maglev train, which last year clocked 374 mph on a test track — making it the world’s fastest train. And it’s nearly three times faster than California’s proposed bullet train, which would travel at 220 mph between Los Angeles and San Francisco. According to Ahlborn, physics makes it problematic for bullet trains to approach hyperloop speeds.
“It’s very expensive to go that fast,” he says. “You have the vibration, it gets very loud. We’re inside a tube, which allows us to go fast and use less energy.”
One vision, two paths
Confusingly, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is one of two competing startups locked in a race to build a prototype of Musk’s hyperloop system (Musk himself is focused on his other projects, notably SpaceX and Tesla Motors). The other startup, Hyperloop One, has raised about $160 million in venture capital to date. In May, it conducted the first public open-air test of its propulsion system in the Nevada desert. Both startups are based in Los Angeles.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies recently announced it had raised a little over $108 million—most of it through a crowdsourced approach, with high-level contributors volunteering their time in exchange for stock options. Ahlborn says the company has attracted more than 800 top professionals from 41 nations and receives five new applications a day from people wanting to join.
“It’s more than a company, it is a movement,” he says.
The hyperloop system will encompass a wide range of new technologies, including cloud, IoT, facial recognition, AR/VR and more, Ahlborn says. The technologies come from companies that have already joined the hyperloop effort, offering their in-kind services. For example, Munich-based AR and VR expert RE’FLEKT GmbH plans to help with proposed augmented windows inside the hyperloop system.
There’s interest in hyperloop projects in several countries in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. But ground zero for the first hyperloop is California. Ahlborn says the company’s next major milestone is a full passenger-scale version of the hyperloop system alongside the I-5 freeway midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, in Quay Valley, California.
So how soon will you be able to buy your ticket for a hyperloop trip that will take you nearly 400 miles in the time it takes to go through airport security?
Don’t hold your breath. Ahlborn says the Quay Valley prototype won’t be ready until 2019. Meanwhile, executives and engineers from Hyperloop One want to begin transporting cargo by 2019 and people by 2021. That’s still sooner—at least in theory—than California’s long-delayed bullet train, which won’t begin accepting passengers until at least 2025.
“The biggest problem in this project is not the technology, not the money, but the regulations,” Ahlborn says.
But he’s optimistic the hurdles will be surmounted. And he has a ready answer for the doubters—a Chinese proverb that’s writ large on a slide in his keynote: “Those who say it can’t be done should not interrupt those doing it.”