It’s 2021. You’re in Dubai, and you need to get to Abu Dhabi, roughly 100 miles away, so you bring up an app on your phone. A few minutes later, a self-driving pod pulls up at your door, brings you to a portal, and docks inside a transporter tube. When you get to Abu Dhabi, the pod undocks and drives you directly to your destination. Door to door, the trip takes about 15 minutes.
That’s the vision of Hyperloop One, which unveiled designs for a full transportation system in Dubai today. The city hopes to be one of the first in the world to have a functioning Hyperloop network–with the first lines potentially built in as little as four or five years. You can see a vision for it in the video below:
If all goes as hoped–and that’s a big if–it will be an early manifestation of Elon Musk’s sci-fi vision for the Hyperloop proposed in 2013. The Hyperloop is billed as a cheaper, faster alternative to high-speed rail or airplanes: levitating pods sucked through low-pressure tubes at nearly the speed of sound. Hyperloop One is racing another startup, Hyperloop Transportation Technology, to try to turn the concept into reality.
To date, most of the conversation about the Hyperloop has focused on how the technology works. But in new work with designers at Bjarke Ingels Group, the startup focused on the experience future Hyperloop customers could have. Instead of starting with the model of a current airport or train station, they started from scratch.
“If you could redefine transportation, why would you reinvent the same things you hate?” says Josh Giegel, cofounder and president of engineering at Hyperloop One. “The question I asked myself a lot was, if a child would describe transportation, would he tell you that you have to go to an airport two hours early to sit and wait, that you’d have to be jammed in a car full of other people, and you’d have to be producing enormous amounts of pollution?”
Unlike taking a flight, which requires planning in advance and shelling out hundreds of dollars for a ticket, taking a Hyperloop could be a spontaneous decision. “The moment you think, okay, I want to go to Dubai, you don’t have to preplan it,” he says. “You know it’s going to be a reasonable cost because the whole infrastructure is really cheap.”
Inside a pod, 6 to 100 people can comfortably sit in a living room-like space. Each pod can be customized. A company might own a pod set up as a meeting room, which could leave the office and travel to another city while employees work seamlessly inside. A pod for critically ill patients could whisk them to a specialized hospital in another city.
“It shouldn’t be people being jammed into a chair sitting in a certain direction,” says Rob Lloyd, the startup’s CEO. “We really should be able to make multiple experiences because the individual pods could be customized to individual experiences and be part of the end-to-end network.”
Self-driving cars–whether owned by a ride-sharing company or by an individual–could also pull up to the transporter, dock inside, and then drive away at the other end.
At a station, which Hyperloop One calls a portal (“We like to think you’re teleporting to your future destination,” says Geigel), cars or pods drive up to a docking station. “It allows us to be very flexible and compact with the space we take up,” says Geigel. Rather than the straight, long shape of a train station, or the sprawl of an airport, the docking stations can be arranged in circles or a cloverleaf shape.
Once a pod or car is inside the transporter, passengers will be able to watch the view, even though the tube is mostly solid, thanks to the zoetrope effect (once used in old-timey animations). “Imagine that you’re sitting inside of a dark tunnel, and every 15 meters or so, there’s a small window,” says Geigel. “That window’s probably no bigger than the size of your computer screen. As you get up to speed, you’ll pass one of those windows about 30 times per second . . . Because it’s light outside and dark inside the tube, you actually get a very bright image that looks like it’s a clear tube the whole way.”
The network will have multiple portals in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but pods will travel directly to the passengers’ destination stations, rather than making stops at multiple stations in between. The system will also connect with other modes of transportation; the first line may a connection between airports, so someone can easily go through security at one airport, take a five-minute ride to the other, and catch a connecting flight.
The company also wants to connect with train stations, ports, the metro line, and autonomous trucks. “Think of Hyperloop as the end-to-end network connector for all these forms of transportation, and one that will connect to existing modes where the volumes are high,” says Lloyd. “That’s why the small footprint of our portals, the ability to access a city center in a tunnel, the point-to-point nature of our system really matters, because we don’t stop along the route, only at the destination.”
Dubai is unafraid of massive engineering projects–such as Palm Jumeirah, an artificial archipelago in the Gulf, and the half-mile tall Burj Khalifa. So it’s a natural early adopter of the Hyperloop.
In a partnership announced today with the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority, Hyperloop One is beginning a detailed feasibility study of a system for greater Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. The government is funding the feasibility study (the funding of construction–and the timeline–are still in discussion).
“It can be easy to come up with big ideas, but if you can execute as well as dream–that’s something that Dubai has proven over and over again,” says Lloyd. “Hyperloop falls into a category of a moonshot idea and Dubai is a great fit.”
The area is also trying to solve the problem of overcrowded streets and reduce emissions. Hyperloop One plans to pick up cargo at the Port of Jebel Ali, eliminating trucks on local streets. The network is also designed to get commuters off roads.
“Dubai has invested heavily in modern, efficient transportation networks, but they are full,” he says. “The region is growing so quickly it cannot keep up with the increased demand capacity. Hyperloop will help reduce emissions, reduce congestion, and increase capacity.”
Over time, the company wants to move throughout the region, expanding to cities like Riyadh and Doha, and replacing more and more plane trips.
Of course, all of this presupposes that Hyperloop One can overcome a series of challenges: having the system certified for safety, developing new regulations for a new form of transport, working through red tape, and raising financing.
And then there’s the biggest hurdle of all: The fact that the Hyperloop technology itself is also still under development–and may never work. In May 2016, an audience gathered to watch an early propulsion test in the Nevada desert. Like other subsequent tests, it proved that the system can go wildly fast. But it’s yet to be demonstrated how the system will work over longer distances, with passengers inside. Some have argued that because the system requires long, mostly straight routes, acquiring land in most areas would be too expensive to make it practical.
“We have to build out a lot of this technology and showcase that we can do it for the cost that we say we can,” says Geigel. “We can build a high-speed connector that can go faster than high-speed rail can, faster than even normal planes operate at. We can do that technologically speaking, and we just need to find a way to do it cost competitively.”
If and when that happens, in the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, it could fundamentally change everyday life. “Hyperloop will change how we view our definition of the communities that we live in, of the jobs that we have access to, of the time that’s required to stay in touch with family and friends,” says Lloyd. “I think that it will create a much more rewarding lifestyle for people.”
[All Images: Hyperloop One/Bjarke Ingels Group]