When asked to imagine the future of transportation, most might draw a car of the future, perhaps solar powered and autonomously driven.
For a select few the way we’ll move ourselves across the world tomorrow is in a steel tube at speeds of almost 800mph.
This was originally the brainchild of billionaire U.S. entrepreneur Elon Musk, who envisioned being able to whisk passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in under half an hour.
Two years after unveiling plans for a futuristic, high-speed Hyperloop transportation system, Musk has now announced plans for building a test track in southern California and a competition for prototype pods.
Several companies subsequently announced plans for pilot projects in California, Texas and other locations, but Musk and his companies, which include privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, and Tesla Motors Inc electric car company, were not involved.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Dirk Ahlborn are one of those in the driving seat.
“Well imagine a capsule filled with people that’s hovering inside the tube. Inside the tube you create a low pressure environment very similar to an airplane that’s at high altitudes. So now the capsule traveling inside the tubes doesn’t encounter as much resistance, and so therefore can travel really fast with very little energy,” Ahlborn told Reuters.
“It’s 100 percent solar powered, that’s basically the invention here,” he said.
The capsules would ride a cushion of air blasted from underlying skis, propelled by a magnetic linear accelerator, according to Musk’s plans, running above or below ground and along low pressure steel tubes.
When Musk announced this idea in 2013, many were quickly excited - with the Hyperloop described as combining Concorde, a rail gun and air-hockey table; a 57-page design brief imagines it carrying automobiles and people at speeds almost impossible for land based vehicles.
Compared to alternatives like the state’s planning high-speed rail system, the Hyperloop would be safer, faster, lower cost and more convenient, Musk originally said in a blog post.
On June 15 SpaceX said it would be building a mile-long test track near its Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters and host a competition for student and independent engineering teams to design subscale transport pods.
But presenting the Hyperloop project to a European audience for the first time in Vienna at the Pioneer’s Festival in May, Ahlborn said HTT were also on the cusp of building their own track.
“So at the beginning of 2016 we will break ground on Quay Valley which is a newly to be built town in California, it’s an 8 kilometre track, which would allow us to optimize passenger boarding and the capsule handling for example,” he said.
“We’re not going to get up to 760 miles an hour, but we believe we can actually break the records that are existing right now, and it’s a necessary phase before we go and build a full scale, full length model,” he added.
It’s not just the technology that Ahlborn is pioneering either.
He and his team of around 360 people at HTT have been able to push forward with their plans so quickly because of the way they’ve structured their business - crowdsourcing talent and labor, rather than crowdfunding the project with money.
That means that individuals and organizations, including publicly traded companies, are all involved.
For Quay Valley itself, they are looking currently at sponsorship deals and investment from strategic partners that can help them with developing the system globally and get them access to the right people.
But what’s exciting for him right, he said, is the potential.
“We try to look at everything in a very disruptive way. So do we need a ticket? Are there other ways of creating revenue? The pylons are just out of concrete - is there anything else we could do with them so that it actually makes sense and you want to have them on your ground,” he told Reuters.
“So you can have concrete that cleans the air, you can have gardens in them, you could have bee hives inside those concrete pylons, different energy solutions, so there’s lots of things that we can do to create a new cutting edge technology,” he said.
Once Quay Valley is complete, Ahlborn reckons the only barrier remaining will be scale - involving more pylons and longer tubes.
“Quay Valley going to be full scale, we’re going to move around 10 million people a year, it’s going to be opening up in 2018,” he said, adding that he expects Quay Valley to be full commercially viable.
“So we assume right now that in 2017 we will be finished with the building process and basically starting to do the optimization and testing before we open. At that time we will obviously open it up to our potential partners in the different countries, and I assume that we will close very, very fast the contract for the first full length track,” he added.
With a strong business model that Ahlborn says makes the railway industry look like a dinosaur, the cost, safety and reliability of Hyperloop could provide an environmental model for future, lightning fast transport.