In the time it took for me to realize that the grit I was chewing on was Nevada desert dust, Hyperloop Ones open air propulsion system test was done.
It had taken far more time for company co-founder and executive chairman Shervin Pishevar to recite a favorite Teddy Roosevelt passage before the test than it had for the aluminum sled to speed up to 115 mph and then abruptly stop in a thrilling spray of sand. Even the three-second countdown that echoed from the grandstand speakers took longer.
Underwhelming? Sure. Wed traveled far from civilization, away from the cacophonous light show that is Las Vegas, past faceless, low-slung factories and unironic freight trains and through miles of beige landscape broken up by tufts of gray/green brush and prickly cacti to see this test. Frustration and, yes, even anger flickered behind my eyes. Yet the crowd around me was elated.
Hyperloop One executives quickly hopped on stage to recount and celebrate what had taken seconds to view.
It took me a beat to realize what the successful 2-second run means.
That short sled ride along a straight metal track was as momentous as a childs very first step. There is never just one. Instead, its inevitably followed by another and then another and soon there are a series of steps that turn into walking and, one hopes, running.
That short sled ride along a straight metal track was as momentous as a childs very first step.
Hyperloop One, a rather expensive and high-tech newborn, officially stepped into toddler-hood and is ready to take many more steps. Not that any of them will be easy.
Where are we?
Considering the significant hurdles, it still faces, Hyperloop One can be forgiven for dragging a few hundred supporters, employees and media out to an area that may well define the middle of nowhere for two nail-biting seconds of suspense. We had to bear witness. They were making tangible billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musks well-documented dream of a human transportation moonshot.
The propulsion system, which Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd likened on Wednesday to a roller coaster that quickly thrust riders at neck-breaking speed up and down hills, did not exist before Hyperloop Ones team engineered and built it in the middle of the desert just a few acres from a massive Solar farm in less than six months. It was a herculean effort, but maybe not all that unusual in Hyperloop Ones short history.
Hyperloop One, formerly Hyperloop Technologies, was founded in 2015 in Hyperloop One co-founder Brogan BamBrogans garage. Less than two years later, theres a 39.9-acre facility with a test track and at least a dozen, massive Hyperloop tube sections sitting in what looks like a dried out basin.
The rapier pace surprises even those closest to the project.
I finally caught up that afternoon with a visibly drained Pishevar, who told me he was moved and grateful for what theyd accomplished thus far.
To work that fast, that hard some of these guys have been living out here in the desert to make this happen. So this is an emotional thing to see it go live.
They also predicted cargo transportation within three years and human transport in five.
The success seemed to embolden Hyperloop One executives. Shervin deemed it a preview of their Kitty Hawk moment, a full development loop test that he expects to complete before the end of this year. They also predicted cargo transportation within three years and human transport in five.
The future at any speed
Proof that a magnetically driven propulsion system can work, delivering over 2 Gs of thrust in under a second is thrilling (to think about, not to witness), but Hyperloop One has its work cut out for it, in just about every phase of Hyperloop development.
Perhaps the biggest moment of the all-too-brief test when the sled kicked up a huge cloud of sand and dust also highlighted yet another area in need of development: the braking system. For the purposes of this test, Hyperloop One added elephant tusk like hooks to the base of the sled that would catch in the big sand pile at the end of the track.
SVP of Engineering Josh Giegel told me they served to slow down the sled, just as running down the beach while dragging a stick along the sand behind you would quickly slow your pace. Hyperloop One still needs to settle on a braking system and do a test run with that. Why is braking so important? The final Hyperloop One system will propel pods along at speeds up to 760 mph. Slowing down from that peak speed is going to take space and a powerful brake.
Giegel also noted that the sleds top speed of 115 mph was hampered by the lack of a levitation system. The erector-set-like sled actually wore slippers to better glide along the metal rails. Overall, that added 0.2 Gs of drag. Without that drag, the sled mightve reached 145 mph, which still isnt that impressive when youre dreaming of 760 mph.
Friction-killing levitation is a core part of the Hyperloop vision. The Hyperloop One team has already settled on passive mag-lev, which uses permanent magnets in the giant tubes and on the future pods to float the pods above the surface of the tube.
At least the tubes are figured out sort of.
A series of tubes
The biggest misconception about Hyperloop may be that itll be a pneumatics-based system. My guess is people believe this partly because Hyperloop transportation will take place inside sealed, low-pressure tubes. But those tubes serve to contain the system and shield it from the elements. They give the engineers utter control over the transportation environment unlike planes, trains and automobiles which are always at the mercy of the elements. The tubes scattered around Hyperloop Ones Nevada facility are, Giegel said, standard, 2-meter water pipes.
They make this very much like youd see the inside [of] a paper towel roll made. They spiral this [metal], they weld it and you can make [these tubes] pretty much as long as you really want. They cut it and ship over the road and assemble it, said Giegel.
Hyperloop One is still working on a better, more innovative structure, he said.
Theres something else about those tubes to consider: They are sealed. Completely. Not a porthole in sight.
Inside those sealed tubes will eventually be pods or capsules, ostensibly riding on the propulsion system Hyperloop One tested on Wednesday. Those pods will also be windowless. For anyone with a touch of claustrophobia like yours truly this may be the biggest hurdle of all.
Its no wonder that, along with Hyperloop Ones own efforts to design the perfect pod for Hyperloop, there are teams around the world competing for SpaceXs support.
Elons project is just to further drive innovation around Hyperloop, said Colin Rhys, Hyperloop Ones Director of Experience Design. The 31-year-old, who has a background in interior design, real estate and art curation, is working through what the experience inside these windowless pods will be like.
As we sat a dozen yards or so from the test track, Rhys and I talked extensively about my fears over a windowless transportation experience.
I think it comes down to education. When we can highlight the massive amount of benefits to people and they can come to that realization themselves of how this technology will impact their lives, I think youll push away a lot of that claustrophobia, a lot of those fears that exist, said Rhys.
Education, though, might not be enough. So Rhys and Hyperloop One are also looking at innovative in-pod technologies to, in essence, distract riders. If we can create something thats tailored and customized to what your interests are, what your passions are. Again, I think we can move peoples fears away from, Why is my window not opening? he said.
Theyre considering virtual reality, projections of the outside world on a screen inside and hyper-customized content, like a digital magazine experience, tailored just for you.
I can imagine a level of immersion that makes me forget that Im sealed inside a sort of giant pill hurtling across the countryside at 760 mph, but I still prefer windows.
Are portals in a Hyperloop system impossible? Possibly not.
There is an ability to do it. We have not established that yet, but we have concepts on how wed like to see that done, said Rhys, offering me a sliver of hope.
Then it got better.
We were having a conversation, just chatting for fun: Well, if you had a tube that was clear, youd have to have another pod that follows, say, every 10 or 12 pods that was a cleaning pod that kept your see-through tube clear, he said and then quickly added that windows are not a focus and they do not believe that seeing outside is a necessary part of the experience.
It could, though, be one pod experience. You see, Hyperloop Ones pod concept may actually be a variety of pods because the company plans to custom build Hyperloop systems for different customers.
What our hope is is to establish a line of products that we can go around and sell to these municipalities and governments and give them an option of what they want to best suit what their need is, said Rhys.
Like everyone else I spoke to from Hyperloop, Rhys was pleased with the days results. His colleague Giegel grinned and told me that Hyperloop would deliver on-demand transportation.
But the company is currently operating in a sort of bubble of acceptance in Nevada where everyone from the Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval to Sen. Harry Reid have cleared a path for them. Surely, in states and cities with established mass transportation system, theyll face greater resistance.
Universal acceptance, though, is not the short term goal. To meet their promises, Hyperloop One needs to only deliver one working freight system by 2019 and one human transport line by 2021. For all we know, they could both be in the Nevada desert.
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