In the fast lane: Elon Musk’s fantastical Hyperloop technology

Leonard Stall
Leonard Stall

Elon Musk's new Hyperloop technology could permanently alter the way humans move through their environments. Vision investigates the science and the human impulse behind the project

It sounds like something from a futuristic blockbuster. Rather than clambering into cars, or boarding trains or aeroplanes in Dubai, passengers enter a driverless pod inside an elevated tube. Once sitting down, they might contact their colleague in Abu Dhabi and ask them to order a coffee to enjoy at their destination. After all, this journey of 160km will take a mere 13 minutes.

For Bibop Gresta, this is no pipe dream. The Italian-born 45-year-old is COO and Chairman of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), a company planning a solar-powered transportation system that will potentially propel people between cities at speeds of up to 1,200km/h.

His is not the only company with such visions. The hyperloop is enjoying publicity because of the perceived “race” between HTT, Hyperloop One, TransPod and other university-based projects competing to make this technology a viable commercial concern. Partly, this is a state of affairs encouraged by Hyperloop inventor and South Africa-born tech entrepreneur Elon Musk. The co-founder of electric car company Tesla open-sourced the technology – essentially a pod levitating on a cushion of air in a low-pressure tube, driven by linear induction motors and air compressors – in 2013 after publishing his white paper. The inventor promised it would “revolutionise travel”, and do so without eye-watering expense.

Musk was therefore delighted to see Hyperloop One’s demonstration in the Nevada desert in May: on a test track, a sled reached 187km/h in just over a second. “Full credit to the team that’s doing this,” he tweeted. “All happening without any help from me.”

In fact, the help came from French national rail operator SNCF and Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, among others, suggesting that traditional transport companies are certainly intrigued by Hyperloop’s possibilities. As for HTT, it reached an agreement with the Slovakian government in March to explore a Hyperloop system to connect Bratislava with Vienna and Budapest, although the delivery date of 2020 seems optimistic given the company only has a smattering of full-time employees – essentially it runs as a co-operative of engineers who spend their free time working on Hyperloop in return for stock options.

Hyperloop 1
A CGI concept from Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

“We are bringing humanity together to solve a problem, essentially that transport is broken,” explains Gresta. “We have brought together the best minds on the planet, even the scientists from the Apollo missions.”

Like Bibop Gresta, they are all driven by the belief that Hyperloop will “change the way we live”, to quote HTT CEO Dirk Ahlborn. If Hyperloop does end up becoming a viable mass transit system, it is not an overstatement to suggest it could do just that.

“It’s not just about moving from point A to point B at the speed of sound. It will redefine how and where people live their lives,” says Gresta. “When this opens on the West Coast of the US, you could choose to live in San Francisco and work in Los Angeles, or vice versa. Or you could create and live in a new city between the two, but not much more than 10 minutes from either. It's the same thing in the UAE. 

It would be able to expand in a way that has previously not been thought possible. There are a lot of people living in Dubai but working in Abu Dhabi. This will make it easier.” he says.

Gresta is right to be enthusiastic, but examples of existing and planned maglev high-speed rail systems – where magnetic levitation is used to lift and propel vehicles – means we probably won’t be booking our Hyperloop tickets for a while yet.

In Shanghai, the 430km/h Transrapid line shuttles travellers between its airport and the outskirts of central Pudong in eight minutes, but is poorly connected with the rest of the transport network. Japan has been toying with a maglev line for decades and finally began construction in 2014 – but it won’t be fully completed until 2045 and is expected to cost more than US$89bn.

Hyperloop 2
The tube used for the first test of the Hyperloop One in the Nevada desert

Naturally this has polarised opinion. There are concerns that it will inevitably centralise power and economic influence in the cities that have maglev and disadvantage the rest. 

Hyperloop’s biggest challenges are likely to be more structural, political and economic than technological. In the UK, for example, there is still huge controversy over a new, electric- powered high-speed rail line between London and northern cities. The estimated cost is £80bn, and it would mean a journey from the capital to Manchester would take one hour and eight minutes by 2033. Hyperloop could do the same journey in 18 minutes. But whether the public has an appetite for wide steel cylinders criss-crossing the country on viaducts is a moot point. Any criticism of Musk’s Hyperloop plan hasn’t been about whether it is achievable, but whether it is really possible to build the first line from San Francisco to Los Angeles for just US$65bn.

There is also interest in exploring the technology in the UAE. Gresta is one such convert, stating that out of 22 city players they are currently holding discussions with, one of the “hottest areas” is the UAE.

In August, Hyperloop One and Dubai port operator DP World announced they would collaborate on a feasibility study of how the technology can improve DP World’s flagship Jebel Ali port. The solution, said Group Chairman and CEO Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, could “hold tremendous potential for enhancing [DP World’s] operational efficiencies and ensuring smoother and faster trade flows.”

“[Hyperloop] is immune to the heat and sand,” says Gresta of the closed- tube technology. “The UAE is the obvious place to build a Hyperloop, as heat and sand are major obstacles for high-speed rail projects in this region. And we are not just designing a pipe for people to travel in: it is a complete architecture that will produce energy, and take water from the sea and deliver it to places desalinated.”

Hyperloop 3
A Hyperloop Transportation Technologies CGI concept for Philadelphia

The country has already begun to receive offers from global firms; HTT is a finalist to provide the transportation system inside the Expo 2020, and Hyperloop One recently supported a competition at online design event Build Earth Live to come up with a Hyperloop station in Dubai.

At an industry conference in March, CEO Rob Lloyd said: “Our goal in the next few years is to select the top three projects in the world where we can build the Hyperloop... Our dream would be that it happens [in the UAE] and we will see if we can make that dream come true.”

It’s interesting that Lloyd should use the word “dream”. Because there is a human impulse at the heart of the Hyperloop: to get to places faster, to be better connected, to make life easier.

“We are shrinking distances but we are also expanding the human heart,” says Gresta. “When you are able to come closer to the people you love, and when you don’t have to spend your life in traffic, you get a significant part of your life back. That’s why people are so excited.”