Beyond The Hype
Since 2013, Elon Musks vision for a magnetic and solar powered freight and passenger transport system has been slowly gaining pace. Then last month DP World announced an investment of $50m in the US-based developer Hyperloop One and the appointment of its group chair and CEO, Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, to Hyperloop Ones board of directors, paving the way for the worlds first Hyperloop in Dubai. Melanie Mingas examines what this could mean for the future of transport infrastructure
A few short years ago, the man who dreams of humans becoming an interplanetary species was sat in traffic in LA. As legend has it, on this fateful day Elon Musk CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, and the founder of PayPal let his mind wander and, in his frustration at the cumbersome transport infrastructure of California, he began to dream of a system powered by magnets and sunshine that would transport people at speeds of 700mph.
He committed the idea to a white paper, published in 2013 and titled Hyperloop Alpha, making the plans public in the hope that future-focussed start-ups would take on his idea and make it a reality.
Between colonising Mars and developing next generation cars, Musk decided he was too busy to pursue the endeavour personally.
Since then two start-ups, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Hyperloop One have made their ambitions to bring Musks vision to life public, with a series of announcements on funding, partnerships and even locations for potential Hyperloop connections.
But no matter how big the names backing the project Rob Lloyd, former president of sales and development, Cisco; Shervin Pishevar, the man whose money got Uber off the ground; and Brogan BamBrogan formerly of SpaceX who is currently suing Hyperloop One after an acrimonious departure from the company earlier this year they were still working from a garage on an idea they knew would be blighted by safety and regulatory red tape in most locations.
In early 2015, after months of speculation and hype, Forbes ran a cover story on Hyperloop One declaring
Hyperloop is real and ignoring the companys premises had been hired only because a photoshoot location was urgently needed. But imaginations were still captured and soon Hyperloop was regularly popping up in news stories around the world.
Over in the GCC, a city-state with a strong vision for what the future should look like, saw the plans and began to court Hyperloop One.
Bringing the idea to life
Following successful tests in May 2016, by August Hyperloop One and DP World had signed an MoU to explore the feasibility of Hyperloop technology being used to transport cargo from Jebel Ali Port to an inland depot 29km away.
The study will also focus on efficient handling of containers, costs, benefits, and demand and volume patterns of moving cargo using the new technology.
Then last month came the news that DP Worlds involvement would be much greater, with financial backing of $50m and the appointment of DP World group chair and CEO Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, to Hyperloop Ones board of directors. It is this news that has elevated the story of futuristic trains, powered by solar and magnets, from hair-brained Silicon Valley status to actual possibility, not only within our lifetimes but by 2020.
Now a Dubai section has been added to hyperloop-one.com it seems all systems are go.
While Bin Sulayems team did not respond to requests for comment, in a statement announcing the news he was quoted as saying: We build our investment decisions on our readings of the industry trends and changes. This project will enable us to deliver competitive features to our customers in terms of speeding their operations, which will significantly increase their returns.
Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd says: By eliminating the barriers of time and distance, we believe we can increase the volume of freight DP World moves through the port using a Hyperloop to a new inland depot, which supports more revenue and profit for all stakeholders.
A Hyperloop system fits seamlessly with existing transport corridors, minimising any impact on urban Dubai and reducing freeway congestion and emissions, he adds.
A feasibility study will investigate the business case, route options and cost to build and operate the system. In September a competition organised by Dubai Future Foundation and judged by high profile industry names such as Laing ORourke MD Mark Andrews, was held for budding engineers to have a hand in the design of hypothetical Hyperloop stations with the full buy in of Dubai RTA.
This route was to link Dubai and Fujairah with a 10 minute travel time. It was the eighth in a series of collaborative BIM (building information modelling) projects and of the seven final round entries the winners were named as Team Mobius from France.
Mobius was ranked first among the finalists after the panel evaluated the projects from technical and economic perspectives, as well as their ability to reinvent transportation for passengers and cargo alike. The panel also evaluated safety and security, efficiency and sustainability.
In the finals stage, the qualifying teams presented their designs before the judging panel; each had to lay plans for parallel passenger and cargo Hyperloop transportation systems that would eventually converge into one station at the finish line. Projects also had to include stations complete with spacious halls for passengers to board the pods.
His Excellency Saif Al Aleeli, CEO of Dubai Future Foundation, says: Announcing the first-place winner of the Hyperloop Competition is a milestone that makes evident our resolve to move forward with our plans to build the future today. The winning project was chosen by a highly qualified panel of experts and specialists in engineering and technology; it is one of the most innovative plans to build an integrated high-speed Hyperloop transportation system that can travel from Dubai to Fujairah in a mere 10 minutes.
Hinting that the competition could be repeated, he adds: The first edition of Dubais International Hyperloop Competition has accomplished a great deal of success and commanded global attention. The contest attracted commendable international participation in a record period of time. This drive to participate in the challenge reflects Dubais positive international image as a world-leading platform to implement the planets most advanced technologies.”
While the GCC grapples with the political and economic complications of building a rail network, Hyperloop and DP World are exploring a type of transport system that exists nowhere else in the world.
In fact, DP Worlds endorsement and backing of Hyperloop One is the first time such technology transcends the realms of Sci-Fi fantasy.
The dare to dream attitude of the GCC, paired with the relaxed approach to regulatory hurdles that would stifle the project elsewhere, appears to be the perfect setting in which to pursue the first Hyperloop. While a test track is currently under construction in the Nevada desert, full scale tests models are not expected before the end of this year, or even the start of 2017, leaving a very narrow window in which to construct, test, improve and complete a Hyperloop project before 2020.
But it is perhaps the involvement of private companies, whose shareholders and clients depend on their sound business management, which provides the greatest endorsement.
Here that comes in the form of a partnership between DHL Express and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, with DHL pledging to support the universitys own development of a Hyperloop system.
In a release from DHL dated 19 October 2016, it was confirmed the Delft Hyperloop, a capsule developed by TU Delft for the rapid transportation of people and goods through tubes, is on its way to California onboard a DHL freighter plane to perform the first tests as part of the Hyperloop Pod Competition organised by Musks SpaceX.
In late January the team of students will defend their invention in the finals of the competition.
Ken Allen, CEO, DHL Express says: In our efforts to stay ahead of the curve, DHL is continuously looking at ways in which our own business could be enhanced or renewed over the near and long-term. As the quickest option available in todays world when it comes to global door-to-door transportation, we are also happy to support any initiatives that look to push the boundaries of logistics to new levels of speed and efficiency.
We therefore welcomed the opportunity to bring our capabilities, knowledge and global network to bear in support of the TU Delft team as they built a viable Hyperloop prototype. We hope that DHL has inspired them with our own logistics performance today and that we have made a contribution to their future success in the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition, he continues.
The capsules in the competition are half-shell prototypes and therefore still unable to accommodate passengers. Using light and strong carbon fiber, the Delft capsule weighs only 149 kilograms and is about 4.5 meters long and 1 meter high. The prototype can attain a speed of 400 kilometers per hour on the 1.6-kilometer test track that is being constructed adjacent to the headquarters of SpaceX in California. In longer tubes, the Delft prototype can reach up to 1,200kpm.
The Delft team is flying the flag for the Netherlands against other international competitors including the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The Hyperloop bandwagon is officially on the road and with strong and steady interest from a growing base of stakeholders it is set to continue generating attention from engineers, designers, physicists and, of course, logistics firms.
Unlike some of Dubais most lavish and elaborate plans, Hyperloop does have the potential to happen and is far from hype alone although the added press inches that a billionaire inventor from Silicon Valley can generate, undermines credibility at times.
Last quarter the Hyperloop One team were granted an audience with Sheikh Mohammed, the Prime Minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Hamdan, Crown Prince of Dubai. While their own online diary of the trip seems to place Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in an entirely different emirate, the fact remains the Hyperloop One team was greeted and listened to by two of the UAEs most influential minds.
Will we be sending parcels and peers intercity by magnetic tube within three years? Who knows. But science and imagination has shown that it is possible and enough people with enough power (and money) to make Hyperloop a mainstream technology, are on the case.
In Brief: Hyperloop
Who owns the Hyperloop technology?
The technology, and the name hyperloop, were originally coined by Elon Musk in a 2013 white paper. The SpaceX/Tesla Motors CEO made his research public in order to spur development and open the gates for others to develop and fund a system. At least three start-ups have made public announcements on their intentions to develop Hyperloop systems to date with Musk directly involved in none of them.
Who is building Hyperloop?
Despite the technology being Musks idea, he isnt directly involved every time an announcement is made for a Hyperloop system in a specific city. Hyperloop One is the company behind the Dubai system and has also announced intentions for a Hyperloop in Russia but others include Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which reportedly has its own means by which to create magnetic levitation and, as the SpaceX competition demonstrates, many more are scrambling for a part of the action.
How much funding has Hyperloop One raised to date?
According to the Financial Times, Hyperloop One has raised $160m to date, with $50m of that coming from DP World.