"We're not a plane, we're not a train, we're not a car. It's a Hyperloop," says the CEO of Hyperloop Technologies Rob Lloyd. "The construct of Hyperloop is like a transportation backbone that will do the same thing for the transportation and the movement of physical things as the internet has done for the digital world."
In 2013, Tesla founder Elon Musk sketched out his vision for a levitating pod that would carry people through a tube. Then he challenged others to design and build it. It's not exactly a new idea; as far back as the 1800s, New York built a pneumatic subway. But it was too difficult and too expensive. Until now.
A conceptual design released by Tesla Motors of the Hyperloop passenger transport capsule.
Lloyd takes me on a tour of Hyperloop's facility in downtown Los Angeles. He ushers me outside to the back of the facility and points out a massive steel tube.
"So this is the size of the tube, it's about an 11-foot [3.35-metre] diameter," Lloyd says. "This is the size we're constructing out in the desert right now in North Las Vegas."
It seems somehow fitting that what some see as the future of mass transportation is being built next to an old rail yard. Unlike a train, a Hyperloop capsule wouldn't make any stops. You'd go straight from where you are to where you want to go.
"We remove the air pressure from that tube equivalent to being 160,000 feet [48,800 metres] above the Earth's surface," Lloyd says. "We create a pod which could carry either passengers or freight, and then we levitate that pod inside of a track in the tube. We use an electric motor to kind of propel it along. The result of that is you can go really fast."
Aiming for 2020
Removing air resistance means the capsule could travel about 1,200 kilometres per hour; just under the speed of sound. There'd be no risk of driver error; there would be no human driver. And without rails or roads, Lloyd, a Canadian, says Hyperloop would mean the end of weather-related transportation delays.
"This would make things really good for Canadians who are actually very used to the interruptions that we see in the winter," Lloyd says. "You don't have interference from snow. There's no ice. I think that a lot of people are looking forward to something that's reliable, that leaves when you want to leave and actually changes how we think of transportation forever."
By 2020, Hyperloop Technologies hopes to start moving freight. Then, eventually, people.
"I'm fully expecting others to follow, and we welcome that competition," Lloyd says.
His main competition is a company with the same goal and almost the same name, based only kilometres away: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.
Its CEO, Dirk Alhborn, shows me the new vacuums that have just arrived.
"Today, our team is more than 500 people. Some of the biggest companies in the world are part of what we're doing," Ahlborn says. "It takes a movement to make these things happen."
In a couple of months, it, too, will build a test track. The company just signed an agreement to explore building a Hyperloop in eastern Europe. But unlike its competitor, here, no-one gets paid.
"So, the way we're doing it is completely different," Ahlborn says. "We're, I would say, a movement more than a company."
Experts volunteer their time in exchange for stock options. Trailblazing L.A. architect Craig Hodgetts was attracted to the project from the start.
"I got involved with the Hyperloop actually in a kind of karmic way," Hodgetts says. Years earlier he tried to write a screenplay about Tesla. He even named his canary Tesla.
"So Elon Musk was somehow in my DNA for a while. I was obsessed, and on a parallel track, I had been launching all kinds of ideas speculatively about different kinds of transportation, MegLev, straddle bus, a kind of levitation device which I designed in the fantasy world, and so when the Hyperloop concept kind of gelled and became tangible and I got associated with it at UCLA, it felt like the conjunction of all these forces had all come together in precisely the right way."
He says the environmental benefits speak for themselves. But Hyperloop could change the way we commute‚ even communicate.
"It's the person-to-person that I think is going to be the most important, because you can imagine, we're losing face-to-face contact with our business associates and even our friends," Hodgetts says. "So that maybe rather than having them meet on Skype, a business meeting, we have a business center at the terminal, and people zapping from other the city for a face-to-face thing, and go back home and have dinner with their wife."
Interior like a jet
He and his students at UCLA are designing the capsule's interior. Think less bus, more executive jet.
"We will exploit all kinds of new media to enhance your travel experience," Hodgetts says.
That new media has another use: it could provide ways to make the service self-sufficient and subsidize travel for its passengers.
"This is the sign-in screen for the app," says Lloyd Marino, who is designing some of the interactive tools for Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Customers. "Through the use of big data, there are a lot of things that we start to understand about you. By doing that we can subsidize your travel experience by offering you things," Marino says.
Basically, if you allow the company access to your data, you could ride at a discount.
"Sure, we can sell ads," Marino says."There's a lot we know about you, so by knowing your behaviour there are a lot of offerings we can serve up to you through this application to make your experience potentially free. If you commute to work every day, and that behaviour shows up in your profile, well now I can start offering you things on your daily commute. So perhaps a coffee at a particular coffee bar, offer you a dollar off because you'll wind up being a regular."
Hyperloop has to be financially sustainable without much public investment, Ahlborn says. He says a route from Los Angeles to San Francisco could be profitable within eight years.
"So it makes economical sense which is very important, especially if you imagine the train industry is a dinosaur industry, and trains, metros, it's heavily subsidized, it doesn't make economical sense," Ahlborn says. "So we have the possibility to build something that is not only is better but it also doesn't need taxpayer's money. So you'll see more public transportation and better public transportation."
First routes likely outside of North America
There are challenges of course. Safety, for one. And the regulations: getting the permits to build and operate.
"It takes a long time," Ahlborn acknowledges. "It would take 20 to 30 years if you wanted to do this here (in California). Bureaucracy is a big, big hurdle. Most of the time these types of projects are political. They are funded by the government. Well, governments change every four to five years, so it's very difficult to get these large infrastructure and innovation projects out."
He believes the first Hyperloop routes will likely be built overseas.
"If you go to Beijing where there's 30, 50 million people in one place, on a good day, you're lucky if you can see your hand in front of your face," Ahlborn says. "Traffic today determines so many things. And being a company that's all around the globe – we have people in China and India and Africa – we're there, we're local. We talk to the local authorities, we know the local problems, we have been very well received everywhere around the world. "
Lloyd says he doesn't expect Hyperloop to replace any existing modes of transportation — even the old trains that chug behind his headquarters.
"I think Hyperloop is going to be the fifth mode of transportation incrementally providing options for existing modes and we'll need to connect with those modes," he says. "We'll need to be able to order a Hyperloop on your phone, show up at the station whenever you want and maybe catch an Uber at the other end. And that's the kind of end to end experience that we think we'll be delivering in an on-demand economy."