By Bernd Debusmann Jr
Virgin Hyperloop One says it is on the cusp of revolutionising the movement of goods and people and is aiming to use Expo 2020 Dubai as its global showcase - all while helping to save the planet
Imagine this: you buy a coffee and a ticket to Abu Dhabi at a station in Dubai. After taking your seat, you set off, coasting through a sealed tube, undisturbed by noise, turbulence or traffic. You won’t even spill your coffee.
Long before it gets cold, you pull into a station in Abu Dhabi. Total travel time: 12 minutes. Less than an hour later, some of your fellow passengers will pull into another station in Riyadh, just shy of 900km away.
This futuristic mode of transport is called the hyperloop, a concept first discussed by billionaire businessman Elon Musk in 2012. Put simply, the hyperloop is a system in which ‘pods’ carrying goods or people will be moved at over 1,120kph (700mph) in depressurised ‘tubes’ via magnetic levitation. The hyperloop will be able to carry more people than a subway, at airline speeds, with zero direct emissions.
Around the globe, a number of firms are hard at work making the hyperloop a reality. But none is more prominent – and more confident of success – than the Los Angeles-based and UAE-backed Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO), which, at present, is the only company in the world to have successfully tested the technology at scale. To date, the firm has received approximately $400m in funding.
At the firm’s helm as CEO is Jay Walder. At 60, Walder is imposingly tall, with the youthful enthusiasm that one would expect from an American running a California firm on a mission to revolutionise the future.
“I love talking about it. You can probably tell,” he tells Arabian Business while sitting at VHO’s regional HQ in Dubai, a wide grin stretching across his face. “We’re in a very exciting moment. We’re watching a whole new transportation technology evolve in front of our eyes. This is the first time in over 100 years that we’re completely re-imagining transport. It’s not an incremental change, at all.”
To casual observers, the hyperloop still seems like it’s ripped from the script of a science fiction film, a high-tech luxury that is likely never going to happen. But, according to Walder, the technology is closer to reality than people believe – and it will be accessible to everyone. He would know – Walder is the former CEO of Hong Kong transit company MTR Corporation and New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
“We’re in a very exciting moment. We’re watching a whole new transportation technology evolve in front of our eyes”
“We are absolutely seeing this as mass transportation. Our goal is to be used by millions and millions of people,” he explains, adding that tickets will likely be comparable to train tickets, rather than aircraft tickets. “It’s about comfort and convenience, as well as speed. It’s not just faster. It’s cheaper to build, and it’s cheaper to operate… we believe that we have the ability to carry large numbers of people for 18 or 20 hours a day, like the best metro systems in the world.”
The best way to think about the hyperloop, Walder says, is like a metro system, but with different cities instead of local stops. In India alone – where the state government of Maharashtra has officially deemed the hyperloop a public infrastructure project – VHO expects to be able to support 200 million passengers annually between Mumbai and Pune, up from 75 million passenger journeys today. The current travel time of over 3.5 hours will be cut down to under 35 minutes.
“It’s going to allow us to effectively re-think the way cities are connected,” he says. “It shrinks the globe in our day-to-day life. Think about that and imagine what it means. Take me. I’m a person who loves the opera. Even living far away, I’d be able to go to the Metropolitan Opera [in New York] and do that in a way that I never would have imagined. When we start to think about that, you start to imagine all the things you could do.”
The Arabian Gulf, Walder says, will be among the first regions to feel the impact of these monumental changes in transport. In April 2018, VHO and Dubai ports operator DP World announced a partnership to create DP World Cargospeed, a firm that hopes to move goods faster – and cheaper – than is currently feasible.
“Our desire to move things incredibly quickly is increasing by leaps and bounds. What we want in the logistics business right now is air transportation, but in which we pay the cost of trucking or sea travel to do that,” he explains. “We can offer exactly that. We’ll move goods at the speed of air transport, at a fraction of a cost.”
In practice, this means that a central distribution hub in Dubai, for example, could ship high-priority, on-demand goods such as fresh food, medical supplies and electronics across the GCC in a matter of hours, allowing for same-day deliveries. A hyperloop-enabled supply chain would shrink inventory lead times, reduce required warehouse space and cut cost by up to 25 percent, leading to better bottomlines. Using overlapping networks, goods could be moved as far as 1,500 to 2,000km, quickly and cheaply.
“It’s re-imagining the logistics industry, and turning it upside down,” Walder adds. “It creates a sense of benefit for customers that is almost unfathomable right now.”
Not to be outdone, neighbouring Saudi Arabia is actively working to bring the hyperloop to the kingdom. Just this July, the kingdom’s Economic City Authority (ECA) and VHO signed a partnership agreement to study building a 35km test and certification track – the longest in the world – at King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC).
“It’s re-imagining the logistics industry, and turning it upside down. It creates a sense of benefit for customers that is almost unfathomable”
“It will be a first of its kind test facility that would really be unparalleled in terms of what we could do, and let us think about how we are connecting this to education, industry and manufacturing,” Walder says of the facility. “It will allow speeds of up to 1,000km an hour, which is just mind boggling. It’s a long-term asset to help us think about the future.”
That future, Walder adds, may see Saudi Arabia play an important part in the hyperloop ecosystem, particularly when it comes to the academic study of the technology. Already, VHO is reaching out to the nearby King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).
“[The partnership] is both from a research perspective and also from a student perspective,” Walder adds. “Imagine, for example, an ‘Institute of Hyperloop Studies’ as part of the university. That could be really, really exciting.”
Since the concept of the hyperloop was initially announced, the public discourse about the technology has focussed on speed: how fast it will get from point A to point B, and what that means for people and commerce. Walder, however, says that what’s missing from the conversation may in fact one day prove to be hyperloop’s greatest benefit: its environmental impact, or lack thereof.
“We’ve made mistakes sometimes in [how much we] talk about speed. It’s hugely important and, in a sense, is the calling card of this system. It’s your door-opener,” he explains. “But I think the sustainability message is hugely important too. There are young people basically demonstrating [against climate change] all around the world, and people talking about their future and re-framing our language away from ‘global warming’ and towards ‘global crisis’.
In Walder’s words, the hyperloop concept brings “a message of hope” to those worried about the fate of the globe. By combining the electric motor, magnetic levitation and low-drag environment, the VHO system is expected to be five to 10 times more energy-efficient than an airplane and use a fraction of the energy of modern high-speed rail networks.
In warm, sunny climates – such as the UAE or Saudi Arabia – solar technology could also be implemented, potentially generating two-thirds of a particular route’s projected energy needs.
“We have a solution, at least within the transportation sphere, that befits the scale of the problem. I think people will begin to see and get that as well,” Walder adds, noting that air travel, particularly short-haul flights, is one of the fastest growing polluters in the world. “[Hyperloop] is responding directly to things that people are now saying are major contributors to the climate crisis.”
While VHO has already begun testing the technology in the barren, flat expanses of Nevada in the US – in which the full-scale XP-1 test vehicle reached speeds of 310kmh on a short, 300-metre track– to date, not a single bit of cargo, nor a person, has taken a hyperloop journey.
But, according to Walder, that doesn’t mean that progress isn’t being made. As evidence, he points to VHO’s work in Maharashtra, where, with the full support of the state government, he expects “shovels in the ground” as early as next year. “It goes to the point of it’s here, and it’s now. They [the Maharashtra government] are saying that this isn’t about what ‘might’ be. This is now, and we’re ready to do it,” he says. “The way that project is set up is really powerful.”
Perhaps as important, Walder says, is the work that VHO is doing to promote the technology, with the XP-1 test pod being showcased around the world, from Climate Week in New York City to the World Energy Congress in Abu Dhabi. Plans for the USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai also call for a recreation of a hyperloop ride, complete with the visuals, sounds and feels of an actual ride on the system.
“Like I keep saying, it’s the first new form of transportation we’ve had in 100 years. It’s understandable that people need to be able to think about and internalise what that means,” he adds. “Bringing the pod has helped. It feels tactile and you get a sense of it in that way, and it helps people stretch their imagination. It’s really fun.”
Of course, there remains a billion-dollar question: when will we move beyond the realm of imagination towards completed real-world projects and see human beings take the historic first ride on a hyperloop pod?
When asked this question, Walder smiles and leans back in his chair to take in Dubai’s skyline from the VHO offices in Media City.
“Obviously, we know that this is the question that is on everybody’s tongue,” he says cryptically. “We’re on the cusp of seeing multiple things move forward. It’s not far away.”
Estimated speeds of common routes based on VHO’s calculations:
Dubai to Abu Dhabi: 12 minutes, compared to over an hour driving
Abu Dhabi to Riyadh: 57 minutes, compared to over eight hours driving or one hour, 50 minutes flight
Riyadh to Jeddah: One hour, two minutes, compared to over nine hours driving or one hour, 40 minutes flight
Around the world, a number of other firms are also working on their own version of the hyperloop system. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HyperloopTT), for example, has announced plans to begin building a hyperloop system in Abu Dhabi near the border with Dubai. The company has also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with property firm Aldar Properties to develop a new HyperloopTT centre that will include a full-scale commercial Hyperloop system, an XO Square Innovation Centre and Hyperloop Experience Centre.
“I hope there will be a robust hyperloop industry. I think that would be good generally,” Walder says of his competitors. “What separates our company from anyone else, I believe, is that we have done it. We built a 500-metre test facility and have run over 400 tests already.”
According to plans for the US Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, the site will include a realistic recreation of a hyperloop ride. The pavilion is currently seeking both private sector and public sector investment to begin work. “It will be the first time anywhere in the world that you’re able to go through a hyperloop pod. These things will be designed to have the look, the feel, the sounds and the vibrations – what little vibrations there are – of a real hyperloop,” Greg Houston, the former CEO of Pavilion USA 2020 said in February.