At a glitzy event at Dubai’s Burj Khalifa this month, one of the companies hoping to roll out a Hyperloop transportation system using the Gulf desert shared its most detailed vision yet.
Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One revealed plans to develop the futuristic mode of transport — first proposed by Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk in a paper in 2013 — in the UAE.
It signed an early-stage agreement with Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) to examine the business case for a Hyperloop route between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which it claims would cut the journey time between the two cities from 160 minutes to 12 minutes.
The company has a similar agreement in place with UAE-based ports operator DP World, to assess the case for using Hyperloop technology to move freight from container ships docked at Jebel Ali to a planned new inland container depot.
Last month, Hyperloop One secured $50m in a funding round led by DP World, and the port operator's group chairman and CEO Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem has since taken up a position on the company’s board of directors.
During the event, Hyperloop One engineers also outlined longer term proposals for a GCC-wide Hyperloop, which could travel from Dubai to Riyadh in 48 minutes; Dubai to Doha in 23 minutes, and Dubai to Muscat in 27 minutes.
This was the boldest declaration yet from a company that promises to complete the first Hyperloop prototype by the first quarter of next year and for the first time prove that the radical transportation technology is more than just science fiction.
The Hyperloop system uses magnets to levitate pods inside an airless tube, creating a low-pressure environment in which the floating pods propel people and cargo to their destinations at speeds of up to 1,200 kilometres per hour (km/h).
Hyperloop One’s co-founder and president of engineering Josh Giegel told journalists at the Burj Khalifa: “This is not just a train in a tube.”
CEO Rob Lloyd, who was appointed to the firm last year after two decades at Cisco, described Hyperloop as the new “broadband of transport” — a high-speed network that would form the “backbone” of the future of transport systems.
“Look, we haven’t seen a major form of transportation emerge for over 100 years, and that was the aeroplane,” Lloyd said. “The train is 200 years old; we’ve made mechanical improvements to it but the technology is that old. [Hyperloop] is an entirely new mode.”
Hyperloop One tested its motor in May 2016, and will test the full system in early 2017.
Under Hyperloop One’s plans, passengers would book their journey via mobile apps — in the same way GCC residents book a taxi ride with Uber or Careem — and the driverless pods would pick them up from collection points across town and shuttle them to one of several stations, or Hyperports.
The proposed route between Dubai and Abu Dhabi would feature several Hyperports, although passengers would travel only to the destination they had booked, they would not have to wait for other passengers to get on and off at various places.
The 110km route includes Dubai International Airport (DXB), the Burj Khalifa, Dubai Marina, Al Maktoum International (DWC), Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUD), Saadiyat Island and Etihad Towers in the city centre.
The whole journey would take between eight and 12 minutes, Hyperloop One claims, and open up the possibility for people to live in one emirate and work in the other, making their daily commute in minutes.
It would also increase air connectivity, the company claims, with people able to fly to AUD on one airline, make a rapid transit to DXB and catch a connection from there.
At the Burj Khalifa Hyperport, Hyperloop One envisages a station built into the ground and reflecting the circular shape of the adjacent Dubai Fountains. Instead of a packed waiting hall, the glass structure would comprise a spiral walkway descending down to the main Hyperloop entrance, separating passengers and pods according to their destination.
Under the terms of the deal with the RTA, Hyperloop One will work with advisors McKinsey and architects at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) on a detailed feasibility study. No financial details have yet been released, with the project cost to be calculated during the study.
However, Hyperloop One claims the project will be cheaper than traditional high-speed rail because of the use of an electric motor in a low-pressure environment, meaning less electricity is required. Reuters had previously reported that the Abu Dhabi-Dubai Hyperloop is expected to cost about $4.8bn, while Hyperloop itself has claimed in presentations that the Dubai loop would yield $523m in profit from combined passenger and freight revenues of $1.3bn — a 37.5 percent profit margin.
The firm’s promotional video speaks of the “excessive amounts of pollution [in today’s “antiquated” public transport systems]; the endless queues, the accidents, congestion, overcrowding and inefficiency. We’re Hyperloop One, and we’re going to change this.”
Hyperloop One is not the only company working to construct the world’s first Hyperloop system. Another US-based firm called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies claims to have also held talks with UAE authorities over the idea.
However, Hyperloop One is the first to have signed a formal agreement with an official body in the region, and, with a test bed under construction in the Nevada desert, argues it is closest to achieving its vision.
However, the company admits there is a huge amount of work to do before Hyperloop can become a reality in the UAE, or anywhere else.
Crucial questions remain unanswered: can humans cope with speeds that are substantially faster than those of a commercial jet? What impact will the UAE’s high summer temperatures, which can soar to 50 degrees Celsius, have on the Hyperloop technology? Will it be able to raise the funding needed to complete its prototype and preliminary tests in Nevada? Will Hyperloop be able to obtain the government approvals needed to start building in the Gulf?
Hyperloop One describes its new way to move people and cargoes as a mode of transport “at airline speeds for the price of a bus ticket”.
It must be noted that the company is yet to sign a similar agreement with the Federal Transport Authority in Abu Dhabi — a prerequisite for pursuing its plans for an Abu Dhabi-Dubai loop in any meaningful way. Speaking to Arabian Business during the event, Lloyd says: “It’s very early days — we’re just a little company.”
It may be just a small company — Hyperloop One employs 200 staff, most of which are based in Los Angeles, with a growing presence in Dubai — but it is building huge expectations and courting extensive publicity. Is Lloyd worried that the feasibility deal with the RTA has been signed before establishing that humans can actually ride safely in a Hyperloop?
“We haven’t done [human tests] but we don’t have any concerns,” he says. “The Hyperloop can travel at just under 1,200 km/h (760 miles per hour). When I flew in an aircraft to get to Dubai, I was going at 580mph and what sensation did I have of speed? Absolutely none.
“We think that going fast means we’re going to accelerate very quickly. But look at your experience of travelling to the [112th floor] of the Burj Khalifa — the tallest building in the world. When you looked up and saw how many floors you were covering every few seconds, you realised you were going very quickly, yet you didn’t feel a thing. You didn’t feel acceleration, nor your stomach going at the end.
“Really, the Hyperloop experience is a matter of how quickly we accelerate and decelerate. And it should be lower G-forces than we experience taking off in a commercial aircraft.”
He says Hyperloop One will work with regulators on certification and testing and has a team of dedicated safety experts checking each component throughout both the design process and production at Hyperloop One’s 10,000 sq m manufacturing facility in Las Vegas.
“I think we’ll be carrying passengers in a production environment in 2020 and cargo in 2021. Which means that the projects conceived to be able to do that will need to start in 2018.”
Of the potential challenges posed by the harsh UAE climate, Lloyd says: “While we were building in the desert outside Las Vegas, it was hot. Not as hot as here [in the UAE], but we learned a lot about heat.
“The issue of dealing with heat on structures is well known here — how buildings expand and contract in heat and cold, what happens to a closed surface — and we’ve been told by partners we will be able to deal with heat dissipation issues. That’s one of the things we intend to explore further as part of our partnership with the RTA.”
While the RTA agreement is a coup for Hyperloop One, commentators at the event suggested that the company should have waited to secure a similar agreement with Abu Dhabi’s transport authority before unveiling its design plans and embarking on a detailed and costly feasibility study. But Lloyd says he is confident an agreement will be secured.
“I met with [Abu Dhabi] on my last visit here and we’re meeting with them in the coming days. We continue to view their collaboration in this whole endeavour as vitally important — as is the RTA’s involvement — in unlocking that end-to-end system for the country, so you should expect us to continue having those dialogues with the UAE’s most important transport regulator and we’ll do everything possible to make [an agreement] happen.”
“High level” talks have been held with representatives from other GCC governments as recently as two months ago, Lloyd says, adding that there are no additional meetings scheduled at present. Hyperloop One ultimately aims to develop a regional network connecting Gulf countries that are only really accessible to each other by air at present.
The priorities are linking the UAE with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, he says.
“If you look at those markets you have the most logical business connections, you also have industrial connections, and you have proven desire to invest in infrastructure — look at the beautiful Doha Metro system that’s been constructed in just two years. I was wowed, they’ve done it better and faster than anybody else in the world.”
In Saudi Arabia, Lloyd says, transport cargo rather than people would be the most lucrative opportunity. “We’re seeing a real desire there to build a manufacturing capability. Manufacturing infrastructure needs a very efficient logistics network and we think this [Hyperloop] could be it.
“To be extremely transparent, I think the cargo and freight flows in this part of the region make a lot of sense for us.”
At Jebel Ali, for example, Hyperloop One proposes building a submerged floating Hyperloop next to the port’s Terminal 4, which is to be constructed on a man-made island off Jebel Ali port. By redirecting cargo to a new inland hub, DP World would free up space for profitable use. The feasibility study is expected to provide details on the design of a right of way, capital and operating costs and potential project finance solutions.
Lloyd hopes that, once the prototype is complete, talks with other GCC governments can resume in earnest. He says the company is aiming to employ “hundreds of staff” in the Gulf region within the next five years to support its expansion plans, but that the company needs to raise more capital to deliver.
The solution to this, says Lloyd, was the appointment of former Uber chief financial officer Brent Callinicos as a full-time adviser to Hyperloop One last month. “Uber was small when he joined yet during his time it was transformed into a $2.8bn company. So he’s been there, that’s a good thing. Only a few people in the world have had that kind of experience of capital raising.”
Shortly after the Dubai launch, co-founder Josh Giegel told the Web Summit in Lisbon that the company was preparing to raise “hundreds of millions” of dollars in a new financing round. “Basically, we are looking to do a big raise next year,” he was quoted as saying. “If we can have a customer on the hook, it will be all that much easier.”
So far the company has raised $160m to finance its growth, including the $50m last month from DP World, and additional investment from 137 Ventures, Khosla Ventures, the French National Rail Company and GE Ventures.
For Lloyd, it is about proving to governments, investors and regulators that Hyperloop One is building something that “really will change the future of transport” and generate economic value for countries and citizens. “We need to show that this is not just an amusement ride,” he says.
Indeed, if Hyperloop turned out to be only tubes of ‘hot air’, that would be a huge disappointment for the company — and for the Gulf’s proponents of smart, futuristic travel.