SXSW Eco 2015: The Future of Hyperloops

First full track will likely be in Africa or Asia

Dirk Ahlborn, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies CEO
Dirk Ahlborn, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies CEO (Courtesy of SXSW Eco)

Hyperloops – the world’s first supersonic ground transport system – may be the mass transit system of the future.

But as the leading company in the field laid out its agenda at the SXSW Eco conference this week, it seems that future may be further away for Americans, and especially Texans, than advocates hoped. First the Lone Star State lost out on hosting the first test track. Then keynote speaker and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies CEO Dirk Ahlborn warned that the first full track will likely be in either Africa or Asia.

That’s a particularly harsh blow, considering that the entire project is an initiative spun out of entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Space X commercial space travel program. That project has a major footprint in Texas, having built its launch site in South Texas, and last year Musk even promised that the first test facility would be here too. However, HTT decided to go with Quay Valley in California, and has already announced that the likely first U.S. route will be between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Hyperloops may sound like science fiction – a pod in a vacuum-sealed tube, traveling at 700mph – but the science is sound, and the underlying technology is established. It’s the same concept as offices with pneumatic tubes used to zip documents between rooms, simply scaled up. Even that’s not a new idea, since the first patent to reduce friction by reducing air pressure for trains was filed in 1904.

For Ahlborn, what’s new about the project is how it is being developed: while HTT has 470 qualified investors, the actual R&D is being done by volunteer experts and engineers in return for stock options. The group is also looking at innovative ways to pay for operating costs. For example, most public transit systems are publicly subsidized as a public good, but as a private company HTT will not have that luxury. Instead, the firm is hoping that innovations like turning support pylons into vertical gardens, or selling off excess generated power from wind, solar, and geo-thermal, could make the transit side cheap or even free.

Yet while the primary research is being done in the U.S., Ahlborn told SXSW Eco attendees that Americans will not be first in line for tickets. Instead, the firm will initially concentrate on developing nations. For example, Mumbai in India has 50 million residents, and far less transport infrastructure than the U.S., and so he basically argued for a moral and environmental imperative to give its citizens a new transit option. Moreover, Ahlborn argued that with less bureaucracy (translation: government oversight, and health and safety regulations), it will be far easier to get a working example outside of the U.S. or Europe.

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