Hyperloop–Elon Musk’s crazy idea to transport people from L.A. to Las Vegas in 30 minutes by shooting them through tubes at speeds of 760 miles per hour–is still far from a practical reality. Yet that hasn’t stopped Virgin Hyperloop One, one of the front-runners in the race to build a working prototype, from designing a transit app that integrates Hyperloop trips into its suggestions for getting you from point A to B.
The app, which was announced at the Consumer Electronics Show this week as a concept, isn’t just supposed to be a fun, futuristic Google Maps. Rather, it’s a clever piece of branding meant to help the company show future passengers–and cities–how Hyperloop might fit into their lives. The app lets you plug in your destination, and then shows you the fastest way to get there–which, unsurprisingly, basically always includes Hyperloop. “What this is about is portraying a potential vision,” says Matt Jones, Virgin Hyperloop One’s SVP of software engineering.
In addition to a bit of CES-borne marketing, the app is an exercise in imagining what travel would look like with this new mode of transportation. Jones describes the Hyperloop as a transit system without a timetable, where you only have to wait a few seconds before hopping into a pod that whizzes you away to another city. The only problem with that vision is what happens before you get on the pod–and after you get off.
It’s the classic dilemma with hub-and-spoke transportation networks like trains and airplanes–and, yes, Hyperloops. You have to get yourself to a station or airport before you can embark, and then after your primary journey take another mode of transit to your final destination. What’s the point of taking a 30-minute Hyperloop from Las Vegas to Los Angeles if you have to sit in 50 minutes of traffic to get to your final destination? “It spoils the journey and spoils the optimization that Hyperloop is looking to achieve,” Jones says.
Borrowing from the kind of mapping interfaces everyone’s familiar with, the app is meant to show people, and cities, how a typical Hyperloop journey would work within a given city when it comes to that last mile. For instance, in demos of the concept, it recommended taking Lyft plus Hyperloop as the fastest option; other (slower) transit options include a bus trip or combining a flight with various means of grand transportation. Jones and his team hope the app will help them demonstrate how Hyperloop technology would work within current transportation networks, whether that’s bike-share, public transport, ride-share, or just plain old cars.
While the app is a concept, the company says it will be fully built out with the help of mapping company Here Technologies and released at some point in 2018. It will be fully functional for people to use, complete with mapping of indoor spaces like malls and airports. (Hyperloop won’t even show up as an option for transit since it’s not actually viable yet.)
Jones says the app could eventually serve another purpose in Hyperloop-served cities–one that has less to do with branding and more to do with understanding how people travel. “We could use some of the data to help a city re-plan their bus timetable based on the demand in time and space,” Jones says. “We could help a city when they’re looking at where to put Hyperloop portals in the future, and optimize buses, public transit, and other on-demand services to maximize flow into and out of portals to reduce congestion.”
Primarily, the app will act as a way to show cities the technology’s potential impact. By building a mapping app that includes the Hyperloop, the company seems to be showing governments–its future clients–that it understands how modern transportation functions and how it could fit within these existing networks.
It’s all a bit presumptuous for a company that hasn’t actually transported any humans yet. Nor has it landed a contract with a city government to actually build and run a Hyperloop track. The app might capture the attention of Hyperloop loyalists, but the idea that it could convince cities to invest in such an unproven technology seems a little naive at this stage.
However, the timeline for actually launching the first Hyperloop prototype isn’t as far away as it might seem. The company plans to start building civil infrastructure for the first Hyperloops in 2019. “[The app is] our move toward commercialization,” Jones says. “It allows us to use real-world data to improve the future of operational control systems that will ultimately power the Hyperloop.” The hope is to convince governments to work with Virgin Hyperloop One on that infrastructure. “If we can get an understanding in 2018 of people’s expectations for elements of futuristic transport, we can rapidly engineer those for future Hyperloop systems,” Jones says. “It’s important for [governments] to understand how it will improve passengers’ experiences going forward.”
Jones notes that the app will hopefully also entice other transit companies–the bike- and ride-shares of the world, for instance–to partner with Virgin Hyperloop One, perhaps by creating ride-share hubs around future Hyperloop stations to make it easier to grab a Lyft. “That’s a message that’s important: We’re a backbone,” Jones says. “We will be building and integrating this community of various transit options to get the most out of the Hyperloop.”