Hyperloop One: Hype, Hoopla or Happening?

Hyperloop One at a glance

  • The concept was first conceived by Elon Musk in 2013, in a 57-page white paper, where he described a system that would address the barriers of friction and air resistance in high-speed travel
  • The company, which rebranded under Richard Branson’s Virgin umbrella after he was named chairman of the board last year, hopes to roll out its first operating Hyperloop system by 2021
  • The company has set its focus on the United Arab Emirates and India, and domestically in Denver, Colo., where it hopes to build a hyperloop for the Denver International Airport.

virgin hyperloop oneHyperloop One promises to bring a brand new mode of transportation for moving people and cargo that is faster than any other train in history, traveling up to 700 miles per hour, above and below ground making it the first new mode in the last 100 hundred years.

In comparison, the fastest train today – magnetic levitation (maglev) – currently reach speeds of over 260 miles per hour.

The company, which rebranded under Richard Branson’s Virgin umbrella after he was named chairman of the board last year, hopes to roll out its first operating Hyperloop system by 2021.

Out in the Nevada desert, north of Las Vegas, the company tests the vehicle, or pod, each month on a 500-meter loop called DevLoop with a team of “subject matter experts” with backgrounds in machinery and technology to engineering at NASA.

In December the Hyperloop reached its fastest speed tested so far, which was 240 miles per hour, and team is looking to test out greater speeds and expand the track they are working on to achieve higher speeds, being limited—and to make it more importantly safe—and a comfortable ride for human passengers.

virgin hyperloop oneThe idea is to move commuters through a low-pressure tube, using a linear electric motor that utilizes the maglev system that allows the vehicle, or pod, to glide and levitate rather than roll on its tracks. But it also allows faster speeds by minimizing both air resistance and friction. According to Hyperloop One, the resulting commute will be like being in an elevator or a passenger plane.

The concept was first conceived by Elon Musk in 2013, in a 57-page white paper, where he described a system that would address the barriers of friction and air resistance in high-speed travel, using a similar basic principle of how an air hockey table works. His idea has spurred some competitors like the Toronto-based TransPod and LA-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, along with the other LA-based Arrivo, started by Hyperloop One’s former chief technology officer who left the company under the cloud of a bitter legal fight among its founding members.

virgin hyperloop oneNow Hyperloop One’s has set its focus on the United Arab Emirates and India, and domestically in Denver, Colo., where it hopes to build a hyperloop for the Denver International Airport. (Meanwhile, Chicago and Musk just announced a partnership between Musk’s Boring Company and the city to build a hyperloop in the city and O’Hare International Airport, leaving some people to wonder if this is a fantasy.)

Icons of Infrastructure caught up with vice president of test and development engineering of Hyperloop One, Brian Gaumer, to ask him what it’s like testing DevLoop in the desert and why the Hyperloop will revolutionize transport.

What is the basic science or how would you describe the idea of Hyperloop?

Brian Gaumer, VP of test and development engineering, Hyperloop One

Brian Gaumer, VP of test & development engineering, Hyperloop One

It’s very simple, but it’s very complex. The basics are pretty much what we have. We start with an enclosed, controlled environment, which is the tube. We do that for multiple reasons. The main reason is we’re reducing friction, and we’re trying to reduce airflow to the pod, or vehicle, that it comes in contact with. Well, if you drive your car down the street, you feel the wind buffering against it, you know how it affects your efficiency. Not only that, but your control. Removing the atmosphere from the tube reduces a lot of –let’s say—it takes away nature. It also eliminates weather hazards, it also eliminates hazards that typically you see in a railroad. It also helps with noise. We are using, believe it or not, something built on existing technology, which is a linear electric motor. I say existing technology because it’s amped up and has our specific proprietary propulsion system, motor system and everything else but you can see this everyday, in an electric motor that you use in your electric car. A train locomotive utilizes the same technology as well, just in a different manner. I hate to use this example, but when you go to an amusement park and you’re one of the rollercoasters, electromagnetic rollercoasters, because that’s a simplified, dumb down version. But unlike a rollercoaster, we can actually control acceleration and deceleration.

And then if you take a look at the levitation, we’ve had a series of technology advances. I mean there are electromagnetic trains, but obviously, if they were perfect we’d have them all over. But we’ve taken some of that concept, and we’ve turned it into something that actually works, is beneficial, is more efficient, and I would, say, allows you to go a hell of a lot faster than what is currently out there.

There’s a maglev in China and there’s the Siemens project, which is Transrapid [in Germany].

When you start to bring some of these technologies together, you have what we have, which is a hyperloop, which is a different mode of transportation. One of the things I love about this–I used to be in machine design previously and machines have a lot of moving parts. This system takes out a lot of moving parts. The more moving parts you take out, the lower your maintenance and the higher reliability can become, which is tremendous.

Even if you take a look at an electric car, you’ve eliminated the transmission, you’ve eliminated the gasoline motors, you’ve eliminated the transfer of power mechanisms, which is tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of different components that have to move against each other—that wear, that have to interact with high precision. But you take that away, in an electric car, now you have the motors, the battery, wiring and control system. This is less than that, because inside an electric car, you still need to have the tire turns, the wheel bearings. Our propulsion system eliminates the bearings altogether, or contact. You take the friction element out. It eliminates the technologies that have been developed—some 100 years worth of technology—to get where we today and this basically it hits a lot of the points that they’ve been trying to develop out of these products and questions: Why do you need oil? Why do we need to lubricate? Why do we need grease?

Could you describe what the testing process is like?

In the beginning we were testing to all hours of the night. And sometimes those days would be long, we were really trying to hit our milestones. The great thing for me in being a part of that the team would be like, “Everybody’s tired,” and we’d be like “We can get to this milestone tonight, we don’t have to wait until tomorrow,” and we’d do it. We would do it methodically, and we would do it safely. But the team would want to stay. It was a very resilient time.

hyperloop oneWe can test anytime of day: night, day, afternoon. It really doesn’t matter. Nowadays that we are in more in an optimization mode, we’re not just trying to get to the next milestone and make sure that we can hit it. And we’re on a more realistic schedule. We’ll test from 7 in the morning to 4 in the evening. In the beginning, it was whenever we could get a test in.

And talk about the environment we’re in. It is the desert. I think people who have never spent time in the desert. They just think it’s just hot. It’s cold too. And it shifts, and you have high winds, dust storms, you have lightning and thunderstorms. You can have dry lightening. We have actually have a full-time weather station [on] and we do a live feed from the National Weather Service because we watch the weather. It doesn’t affect the testing, but if we have lightning in the area, we don’t want personnel going up and testing. And we pull everyone back. And fortunately for us in the desert, it passes pretty quickly.

Right now, we’re in a zone where we are testing once a month.  We do have a full-time staff in Las Vegas. We used to have during our construction a very large staff at the Apex site, but now we’ve because were in testing phase, we have a good size staff in North Las Vegas at our metal works facility. And there are there to support the testing. The majority of engineers are here in LA, or what we call the subject-matter experts.

If you go out to the test site, you’ll see two very large semi-permanent structures. And also you’ll see some smaller trailers and some equipment and lots of tubes. And just beyond that you’ll see our substation and the DevLoop, 500 meters of white tube.

What are your testing goals now?

Our primary goal is to work into the first phase of commercial certification. We want to build this and make sure that it’s reliable, just as safe of as any other mode of transportation. Where do we have to go? Testing today, we’re refining a lot of the work that we’ve been doing for the last few years. We’ve been working on a much more aggressive time scale than you would see in other areas. And you know the next phases of this are going to be stepping through some of subset testing refinement and certification. We have 500 meters today, and we want to move into a longer route, and our teams are working on that. And then what we’ll do in that facility, we’ll start to go to higher speeds, to really integrate all the controls system. We’ve been doing it on the smaller scale, so we’ll be bringing in more layers.

Now that Virgin and Richard Branson’s on board, has the direction or mission changed on how Hyperloop will be integrated for cities and for public use?

Our main mission hasn’t changed tremendously but it has grown. We’ve expanded the scope. We’ve come a long way since the first days of the white paper [of Elon Musk]. But we’re still here to do something remarkable, a new mode of transportation, which is high speed, it’s on demand, it has little impact on the environment, or the environment that we put it in. We can above ground, below ground.

It’s neat having Richard on board. It’s pretty exciting. He brings a proven track record with him. The Virgin brand is everywhere, and his fingerprints are on everything. And even the rail in the U.K. to the airlines. Virgin’s transportation focused, and that’s right in our niche.

And that’s what we need, that kind of experience and guidance. He’s done some interesting things. This is the kind of guy who goes into the airport and wants to talk to the passengers flying on his planes, because he’s interested in their experiences in the air, rail and even in space transportation. Let’s not forget about his ventures there. And he’s very interested in the passenger experience. I think that brings a different perspective—a more broad perspective—on what we’re trying to do. And then he brings a lot of enthusiasm. He ‘s not just an entrepreneur. He’s someone who has notoriety and perspective on the countries we are working with—but most of all he’s super excited about this. This is more than just an investment for him. He’s actually interested in it as we are.

(This interview has been edited and condensed.)

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