Imagine travelling from Los Angeles to San Francisco - a distance of 400 miles - in under half an hour. Well, that’s exactly what a new transportation system envisioned by billionaire Elon Musk sets out to do.
The ambitious Hyperloop idea, first revealed in a whitepaper published in 2013, is being chased by German-born Dirk Ahlborn because Musk (already CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors) doesn’t have the time to give the project his full attention.
“The Hyperloop is a capsule full of people inside a tube elevated on pylons,” says Ahlborn. “Inside the tube we create a low pressure environment so the capsule doesn’t encounter a lot of resistance and can reach speeds of 1,200kmh (740mph).”
The radical concept - described by Musk as a cross between Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table - propels the capsule through depressurised tubes using magnets and fans.
Ahlborn, a former banker turned entrepreneur, tells me Hyperloop will change the way we live and work. Indeed, the network he dreams of creating could allow people to travel from Chicago to New York in a similar way to how people currently travel from Oxford Circus to Liverpool Street on the London Underground's Central Line.
During his keynote at Pioneers, Ahlborn shows a Tube-like Hyperloop network overlaid on top of a map of the US that could one day become a reality, providing the tests in Quay Valley (see below) go to plan.
Thinking into the future, he says Hyperloop could even be free (or very cheap) for passengers to use, assuming he manages to generate other revenue streams from things like advertising (showing ads inside the capsules and stations) and energy production (solar panels, footfall through stations and kinetic energy from the capsule as it passes through the tunnel).
“Hyperloop is a metro system,” he says. “It’s like a subway. You connect cities that are 400 miles apart with a very low ticket price. We want to make it something you use every day.”
Building a public transport system capable of reaching speeds that break the speed of sound is no mean feat, regardless of how simplistic Ahlborn tries to make it all sound.
“It has to be as similar as possible to an aeroplane,” he says. “From a technical point of view, we have propulsion levitation technology which has passed the prototype stage, we can build pylons, we can build tubes. We know we can create a low pressure environment in the tubes.”
Ahlborn is keen to stress he's not shirking on safety either. After all, a crash at the speeds being talked about would be fatal to all onboard.
“We’re giving a lot of attention to safety; it’s obviously very important. We have to overachieve on the international safety standards. We have safer systems than railways because human errors on railways create a lot of issues; we just had two big train accidents in the US for, example. It’s old infrastructures.”
Hyperloop is being designed so it can be used by anyone from two-year-old toddlers to 80-year-old pensioners. As a result, it needs to be a relatively comfortable ride but some critics have suggested that the high speeds will result in large forces being placed on passenger's body's as they travel on Hyperloop.
“If you have ever gone to America on a Boeing aeroplane then you’ve been over 1,000kmh,” says Ahlborn in Hyperloop's defence. “You don’t feel anything. What you do feel is acceleration, deceleration and lateral acceleration. So in curves, that’s a problem. We have 0.5G lateral and 1G the other way.”
By the sounds of it, curves and hills are going to be Hyperloop's worst enemy.
“In order to get to top speed, it has to be very straight with very little inclination. If you have curves you have to slow down so ideally we go as straight as possible,” says Ahlborn.
Ahlborn wants Hyperloop to run along as many freeways and as much publicly-owned land as possible. But what happens when that’s not possible, and a pylon has to be built in a farmer’s field or someone’s back garden?
“We’re thinking about what we can do in order to make it more attractive for someone to have a pylon on their land,” says Ahlborn, adding that ideas so far include: putting bee hives in the pylons; coating the pylons in air-cleaning cement; and developing vertical sky gardens.
Before the first large scale versions of Hyperloop can be developed, a smaller test route must first be built and trialled.
“This is an important step to be able to do full length track,” Ahlborn explains. “We need to optimise boarding times, procedures and capsule handling. It’s necessary to build a full scale version that is used by people in order to get everything running smoothly before we do a larger investment.”
This proof of concept, taking up much of Ahlborn’s time at the moment, is well on its way to becoming a reality.
Providing planning permission is granted by Kings County, California, it will be located in the soon-to-be-built town of Quay Valley and should be finished by 2018, with construction set to get underway next year.
Quay Valley is a proposed 75,000-resident solar power city situated halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
It’s going to be home to “entertainment districts, big resorts and big shopping malls," says Ahlborn, adding it’ll be popular with people coming from cities like Las Vegas and San Francisco.
Ahlborn says that in a few years time passengers driving down the Interstate 5 freeway will be able to see shuttles running at 30-second intervals whizzing along as they drive past.
“We didn’t want to build something in the desert or just anywhere,” says Ahlborn. “It has to be done on full size. The technologies are already existing so it’s about putting them together.”
The $150 million (£97 million) test track will be five miles (8 kilometres) long and transport people from around the town, in a similar vein to the Las Vegas monorail, albeit a lot faster.
Ahlborn plans to raise a large chunk of funding ($100 million) for the test track off the back of a stock market listing later this year.
“We’re not going to get up to 1,200kmh there but that’s not what it’s about,” said Ahlborn. “We still hope to beat the 500kmh record the Japanese put up; that’d be an amazing thing to do and it’s doable.
“We’re probably going to have to break really fast afterwards,” he continues before bursting into a chuckle.
The bigger picture
So far the Hyperloop CEO has drummed up support from 360 professionals, including experts from organisations such as Nasa, Boeing, Airbus, SpaceX, Yahoo!, Salesforce and Stanford. They’ve been enticed with stock options in the company - something Ahlborn claims will make them millions one day.
In addition to the professionals, Hyperloop has amassed a wider support network of over 10,000 people, including hordes of people in the world of academia and engineering. These contributors are busy submitting essays and ideas to Ahlborn that could help Hyperloop to become a reality.
The proposed route of the first full-scale Hyperloop runs along Interstate 5, which runs through the Central Valley in California. It would take seven to ten years to build.
Musk first envisaged the route when he realised the US government was about to commit $52 billion towards building what Ahlborn repeatedly describes as “the world’s slowest high speed rail” network in what is arguably the most forward-thinking part of the world, home to innovative companies like Google, Apple and Facebook.
He and Ahlborn both believe Hyperloop could be significantly cheaper than this scheme being funded by the US government.
However, getting the money for Hyperloop could still be tricky. Pricing forecasts for Hyperloop vary wildly from $6 billion to $100 billion but Ahlborn believes the first long-distance Hyperloop route will likely cost somewhere in the region of $16 billion.
If anyone can find the money, it could be Ahlborn. In addition to taking the Hyperloop helm, Ahlborn is also leading a crowdfunding platform called JumpStartFund.
“It’s a platform that allows technologies, ideas and projects to become a reality by building a community around them,” said Ahlborn. “We reached out to [Elon Musk], got some permission to post Hyperloop on the platform, and from there it took off.”
Despite receiving financial support offers from "over 400 investors", Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is yet to officially take any investment. Instead, it's relying on sponsorship deals from the likes of Microsoft and Ansis, a 3D software company, and donations from its employees, of which there have been close to $5 million in total.
Alternative revenues and overseas expansion
In order to support Hyperloop, Ahlborn has come up with some alternative ideas as to how the system could make money once it's in operation.
“We will invest heavily into renewable energies because they’re very important to us and they’ll help us make money,” he says.
“Energy is a really important part for what we’re doing,” he adds. “Everybody always talks about the speed but that’s only one part. The most important part in my opinion is the fact it’s self-sustaining. We actually will produce more energy than we use so that’s a revenue.”
Early plans for Hyperloop revolve around the US but Ahlborn, someone who clearly thinks big, is already eyeing up about how to connect other countries and continents. However, some places appear more likely to get Hyperloop than others.
“Europe of course is on the list…we had some enquiries there but legislative burdens are there so I personally see the first [Hyperloops outside the US] more in the Middle East and Asia where we have contacts.”
Anyway, let's not get ahead of ourselves. There's no denying Hyperloop has received a lot of attention but Quay Valley will be its first real test. Will it get off the ground or is it just a pylon in the sky idea?