Hyperloop is built on a lot of dreaming and little proof

Tyagarajan S March 1, 2017 12 min

Story Highlights

  • In just four years, Hyperloop has moved from a concept design to a potential future of transportation
  • Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies have received millions in private funding but have shown limited public progress
  • India should not rush into the unproven technology yet

The Hyperloop circus is back in town. Hyperloop One (HO), one of the startups promising to bring Hyperloop travel to the world, presented a vision for contracting the space-time of travel in India on Tuesday. We are getting a little used to it by now. Last year, it was Bibop Gresta of Hyperloop Transportation Technology (HTT), HO’s competitor. Give me some land and about $40 million, he said. In return, he promised to deliver Hyperloop travel in 36 months.

Movement is freedom. And these startup salesmen promise it to us, besides deliverance from a choking, inefficient road transport; from a network struggling with century-old infrastructure; and from airlines gasping with the rising tide of passengers.

But, is it a promise that they can keep? While listening to HO and HTT sell the Hyperloop dream, we tend to forget that this is an art they’ve perfected over the last few years. We also tend to forget that Hyperloop doesn’t exist in the world, as yet. It’s a concept; an idea of something wonderful but just that. Is this a collective reality distortion-field we are being subjected to?

In today’s FactorFuture, let’s dive a little deeper into the Hyperloop story to see if we can get some answers.

Origin of Hyperloop

Back in 2013, Elon Musk presented a delightful science-fiction like vision in a 58-page proposal for a new way to travel: Little capsules floating on air cushions and shooting inside steel pods across the country. He promised a 35-minute journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco, not unlike a conductor standing in front of a magic, fantasy train. For a planet stuck in the swamp of modern transportation, Musk’s idea, titled ‘Hyperloop Alpha’, held more than a ray of hope.

Hyperloop Alpha
The early rough design for a Hyperloop pod that Elon Musk presented as part of his ‘Hyperloop Alpha’ solution in a 58-page design document. Image: SpaceX

Perhaps, because it was coming from Elon Musk or because of the times we live in, the idea moved from an extended back-of-the-envelope concept to one that governments are fawning over in less than half a decade. Musk himself did not pursue the idea  —  his hands too full upending cars and rockets  —  but open sourced it.

Since then, startups that sprung up promising to corporealise this vision have been backed by millions of private dollars. Hundreds of students and private innovators are making travel pods and playing with levitation. Governments are excited. And, we’re heralding the arrival of the ‘fifth’ mode of transportation. It’s safe to say that the tentacles of Hyperloop have tightly wrapped around our collective imagination.

Perhaps, because it was coming from Elon Musk or because of the times we live in, the idea moved from an extended back-of-the-envelope concept to one that governments are fawning over in less than half a decade  

But, how close is it to being a reality?

First let’s talk about the students and private innovators. The Hyperloop Pod Competition, that Space X (a US-based advanced rockets and spacecraft manufacturer) announced in 2016, saw some real-world action a few weeks ago when 27 teams from six countries entered the contest with the pods they had designed and assembled. Three of these teams passed the rigorous 101-point review and were allowed runs in a pressurised vacuum chamber.

The innovations were impressive, especially considering the tight budgets and tighter timelines — all the teams had come up with their designs just a year ago. Apart from coming up different pod designs, the teams also tried to solve many key problems from levitation to safety to braking.

But it’s the beginning of a long journey. The team from MIT, which won for safety, reached a maximum speed of about 71 kmph. Delft University, which won the best overall score, did not do a complete run of the 1.25 km track. WARR Hyperloop team from Munich, which won for the fastest run, decided to use good old wheels (no fancy magnets or air cushions). Many fundamental questions still need to be answered on the technology itself.

In mid-2017, the teams will be back competing for Hyperloop Pod Competition II where they will compete to achieve maximum speed with deceleration. In the meantime, a couple of startups armed with millions are promising Hyperloop travel to the world already.

Dream peddlers

Soon after Musk outsourced his plans, two companies sprang up, wanting to make it a reality. Today, HO and HTT are cradling the world’s Hyperloop dream in their hands.

Going by the amount of private capital ploughed into it, HO is leading the race, having raised $160 million in capital. Its rival, HTT, also claims to have raised over $100 million including “volunteer time”, “land rights” and “in kind” investments (the equity investments are less than a third of that total). This is par for the course for HTT, which works on an intriguing crowdsourcing model, offering stock options to “volunteers”.

Little is known about the technical details, but both companies are relying on magnetic levitation rather than the air cushion-based system that Musk had originally proposed in his design. There has been just one real public demonstration till date — HO’s propulsion test in May 2016 where it accelerated a semi-built pod in open air to 187 kmph in less than two seconds.

But the big test for HO is likely to come in the first half of 2017  —  in what the company calls its “Kitty Hawk” moment  —  when it does a “full scale” public test of its system in Nevada. If HO gets its magnetically levitated cargo pod to shoot through a half-km vacuum tube successfully, it would be a major milestone for the company, and perhaps the world.

Hyperloop One Nevada Test
Hyperloop One has shown visible indications of progress. It is setting up a test track in Nevada where it will conduct its first public full test. Image: Hyperloop One

HTT is more mysterious, with little known about its technology (except that it will use Vibranium for its pods!). It hasn’t talked about or publicly revealed what it’s working on till date. Its proposed test run in Quay Valley in 2016 was put on hold due to delays in getting construction permits and other regulatory complications.

However, both companies are involved in high-decibel selling of Hyperloop across the world.

Both Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies are involved in high-decibel selling of Hyperloop across the world. The tentative interest from various governments provides fodder for their limelight  

The tentative interest from various governments provides fodder for their limelight. The first Hyperloop (if it happens) is likely to come from HO in Dubai, which has been pursuing its dream of connecting to Abu Dhabi in minutes aggressively. Dubai is also one of the early investors in the company and has a certain vested interest in showing proof of concept.

HO has also shortlisted 35 contenders (including five from India) from the 2,600 entries it received for the Global Challenge it launched back in 2015. The key here is that these are proposed projects and do not involve individual governments.

HTT is similarly working to drum up potential opportunities with various governments. It is “exploring” building a Hyperloop network with Slovakia and conducting “feasibility studies” for Abu Dhabi.

It, however, remains to be seen which of these projects will become a reality.

Let’s take the pneumatic vacuum

It 8am and the day is pleasant in Bangalore as you finish breakfast and you request your office ride on demand. As you step out of your home, a little self-driving pod picks you up and whisks you away (with other pooled passengers) to Bangalore Central Terminus. Here, it auto docks with other pods and enters the vacuum tunnel. 

Inside, you are busy working and in the window next to you, a simulated view of fields and mountains pass by serenely. The only clue that you are shooting through a tunnel at more than a 1,000 kmph is the initial thrust of acceleration. 

When your pod arrives at the destination it undocks and drives out into the heavy traffic outside. It’s 10am when you reach your office. You feel the brief burst of the heat outside signalling a hot day in Delhi

Could this be life in 2025? This is the dream that Hyperloop companies are selling.

It’s a dream we have fantasised about incessantly. Conquering mobility is a persistent theme in fantasy and science fiction, although it is dealt with consistent bizarreness.

Conveyor belts full of moving ‘sheeple’ were ever popular. Heinlein took it to an extreme though in ‘Roads must roll‘ in what is perhaps a rare example of a science fiction society built around transportation. The roads  —  large, multi-speed conveyor belts that carried people and cargo from place to place  —  had to keep rolling all the time. It ends up spawning a whole ecosystem that lives and works on these roads.

It’s a dream we have fantasised about incessantly. Conquering mobility is a persistent theme in fantasy and science fiction, although it is dealt with consistent bizarreness  

Pneumatic vacuum tubes hurtling us in a strangely crude fashion were another staple. There’s the “tube transportation system” (Futurama) where passengers enter transparent tubes head first, speak out their destination and are whisked away by an unknown mechanism to surprisingly land on their feet (unless they are clueless tourists). There are also the “bounce tubes” (Double Star, Richard Heinlein) that are vaguely similar in nature and use some kind of pressure system to shoot people around.

In the Futurama universe, the Tube Transport System is a mass transit in New New York City. The system is made up of several transparent tubes, forking and merging without more apparent mechanism. Yet, they transport passengers to where they wish to go. Image: Futurama

Slightly more serious attempts to harness tunnels as a way to move led to the creation of ‘Gravity Trains’. The one in Total Recall (2012) is capable of shooting through the earth’s core to emerge on the other side and “gravity-assisted linear accelerators” from A World Out of Time (Larry Niven) could move you from one part of the planet’s surface to another.

Perhaps, there’s something alluring and real about tunnels as a way to conquer distances.

Way back in 1799, a British engineer, patented something called the ‘Aeolian engine‘, which used compressed air to create a hyper-fast transportation system. Sometime in the mid-1800s, this took shape as ‘Atmospheric Railway‘, in which trains moved using the vacuum traction created by extracting air from pipes between the rails with regularly placed pumping stations along the line. But it was eventually shut down because it was too darn expensive.

In 1869, Alfred Ely Beach had constructed a secret pneumatic tube transit under New York City, consisting of circular brick-lined tubes with high-powered fans at the ends. It was a short-lived enterprise, though, because of the city’s desire to invest in a subway.

As we approach Hyperloop with similar desires to be shot through such pneumatic tubes, one hopes that the reality is significantly more comfortable, if not pragmatic, than the imaginary world.

Delhi to Mumbai: 80 minutes or a decade?

India is ripe for new travel technologies, given that our fastest train today, Gatimaan Express, has a maximum speed of 160 kmph — about a third of the speed of the world’s fastest train. But, does Hyperloop make sense for us now?

The technology is still to be validated. Some fundamental questions of whether air bearings or magnetic levitation works better hasn’t gotten the kind of experimental innovation (which Space X’s pod contest is enabling to some extent) that is needed. There are several other first-order questions. How do you brake quickly and smoothly while moving at a speed of hundreds of kilometres per hour? What about safety and redundancies in case of failures?

How do you brake quickly and smoothly while moving at a speed of hundreds of kilometres per hour? What about safety and redundancies in case of failures?  

Without a single full-scale testing, it would be too early to talk economics, but everyone is making promises. As we had mentioned in a previous article, even the current numbers do not make Hyperlook very viable. When Musk proposed the concept, he pitched it at around $7 million / km. But all recent project proposals indicate that the cost is likely to be around $40 million / km. On top of this will come land costs, which are significant, and the likely discovery of all the complexities of building a precision transportation tube across the gnarly landscape of India. We haven’t even tacked on litigations and other delays that will bump up the cost.

And between the two companies, HTT, which is suspiciously opaque and relatively more unproven than HO, has been more vocal in India. Bibop Gresta recently claimed that five chief ministers have put out offers to bring the concept to their state and the company is supposedly raising $100 million from investors (local and abroad) to bring Hyperloop travel in 36–38 months once a contract is handed.

Now, HO has joined the party with the event on Tuesday to announce its vision for the country. On paper, the gleaming lines connecting the various cities in a fraction of the time do look appealing.

On Feb 28, Hyperloop One put forth its India vision of connecting five cities across the country. Image: Hyperloop One

Neither of them have a proven track record, though. Heck, they haven’t even done one full-scale testing. If HO does successfully prove the concept this year, it will be a huge step forward. Until then, all that these companies have is a bunch of governments expressing interest  —  most of them are feasibility study contracts.

“I am passionate about India because it can be one of the first countries,” says Bibop Gresta. But, maybe we should let someone else have a go at this first.


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.