The majestic Senate majority leader suite in the US Capitol was still Harry Reid’s in September when he eagerly scooched his leather chair across the Oriental rug to gaze at something that, he was told, would change transportation forever.
Former SpaceX engineer Brogan BamBrogran (yes, that’s his legal name) pulled out his iPad for a preview. Two business partners, the near-billionaire venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar and former White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, carefully studied the powerful senator’s reaction. Even Mark Twain, a onetime riverboat pilot whose portrait hung over Reid’s desk, eyed the proceedings warily.
“What’s that?” asked Reid, sitting up, animatedly pointing at the iPad. BamBrogan’s home screen showed a photo of a desert plain with dazed and dusty people wandering around at sunrise.
“Er, that’s Burning Man,” the engineer responded, then clued in the 75-year-old politician to the techno-hippie carnival that takes place pre-Labor Day in the Black Rock Desert of Reid’s home state of Nevada.
BamBrogan’s formal presentation was even wilder, a vision for efficiently moving people or cargo all over the Southwest, to start, and the world, eventually, at rates approaching the speed of sound.
At the end of the 60-minute pitch Reid sat back and smiled. That’s when Pishevar leaned in, asking the senator to introduce him to a Nevada businessman who owned a 150-mile right of way from Vegas to California for a high-speed train. Reid said he would, and they shook on it. And thus fell another obstacle in the group’s fast-moving efforts to actualise what until recently had seemed not much more than geek fantasy: The hyperloop.
You remember the hyperloop, don’t you? It’s that farout idea billionaire industrialist Elon Musk proposed in a 58-page white paper in August 2013 for a vacuum-tube transport network that could hurtle passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles at 760 miles an hour. Laughed off as science fiction, it is as of today an actual industry with three legitimate groups pushing it forward, including Hyperloop Technologies, the team in Harry Reid’s office. They emerge from ‘stealth’ mode with this article, armed with an $8.5 million war chest and plans for a $80 million round later this year. “We have the team, the tools and the technology,” says BamBrogan. “We can do this.” The 21st-century space race is on.
It’s hard to overstate how early this all is. There are dozens of engineering and logistical challenges that need solving, from earthquake-proofing to rights-of-way to alleviating the barf factor that comes with flying through a tube near the speed of sound.
Yet it’s equally hard to overstate how dramatically the hyperloop could change the world. The first four modes of modern transportation—boats, trains, motor vehicles and airplanes—brought progress and prosperity. They also brought pollution, congestion, delay and death. The hyperloop, which Musk dubs “the fifth mode”, would be as fast as a plane, cheaper than a train and continuously available in any weather while emitting no carbon from the tailpipe. If people could get from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in 20 minutes, or New York to Philly in 10, cities become metro stops and borders evaporate, along with housing price imbalances and overcrowding.
The only thing this geek fantasy is missing: Musk. With his hands full running Tesla Motors and SpaceX, he’s left it to others to make his theory a reality. He declined to comment for this story. But his fingerprints are on each of the groups vying to build the hyperloop, even though they couldn’t be more different.
Hyperloop Technologies is the Dream Team, enlisting a formidable lineup of Silicon Valley and Washington superstars, most with a strong connection to Musk. Pishevar, the 40-year-old poised to break into the billionaire ranks thanks to his investment in Uber, is a Musk intimate and the one who forced his friend to publicly reveal his hyperloop vision in the first place. His new Sherpa Ventures fund led Hyperloop Technologies’ seed round, along with Formation 8, overseen by Joe Lonsdale, another young (Forbes 30 Under 30) centimillionaire hyperloop enthusiast and co-founder of Big Data colossus Palantir. Now add Messina, who oversaw President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign; co-chairman David Sacks, who worked under Musk at PayPal before scoring big at Yammer; Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize Foundation, on whose board Musk sits; and BamBrogan, who until recently was one of Musk’s key SpaceX engineers. Musk has received regular updates from this group. President Obama has been briefed as well.
Even more surprising than the platinum-plated roster: Hyperloop Tech’s initial mission. They intend to go way beyond Musk’s original vision and focus first on freight rather than human transportation. This high-speed ‘cargo loop’ could go over land or under water. Imagine submerged skeins of steel tubes crisscrossing the ocean or up and down the coasts hurtling shipping containers at near supersonic speeds. Need iPhones? Press a button and a container-load is on its way from Shenzhen overnight.
The hyperloop startup has a typically Pishevar provenance. Over the past few years, he’s inserted himself in Hollywood’s self-important diplomat set, travelling with Sean Penn to Benghazi to meet Libyan rebels who fought Gaddafi and to Tahrir Square to rally with Egyptian protesters. In January 2012, he and Penn were riding on Elon Musk’s private jet to Cuba to pressure the Castro government to release some American prisoners. En route, Pishevar pushed Musk about when he was going to tackle the hyperloop, a project the billionaire had been dropping hints about for almost a year.
“He said he didn’t have time to do it himself. So I said, ‘I’ll do it. I’d love to do it.’ ” Over the next six months, Pishevar kept on Musk to publish his hyperloop research, but Musk kept begging off, saying he was too busy. Pishevar being Pishevar, he forced the issue: In May 2013, at the AllThingsD conference, Musk had again avoided the subject of the hyperloop onstage. So Pishevar got to the microphone first for the audience Q&A: “Elon, can you please let the audience know more about the hyperloop idea?” Suddenly on the spot, Musk stumbled through a description and reluctantly promised to release the report by August. The idea was now public.
And when he did release his report, the internet exploded with commentary, praise and snark. No matter, as Pishevar began putting the hype in hyperloop. A major Democratic Party donor, he turned a meeting with President Obama at the White House into a 30-minute hyperloop pitch. The President vowed to read Musk’s report that night, according to Pishevar, and the next week asked the Office of Science & Technology Policy to review the idea. He pulled a similar stunt on Larry Page while on the Google founder’s yacht as they watched the America’s Cup race in San Francisco Bay.
Anyone who works at least ten hours a week gets equity in the company. Ahlborn, based out of Hermosa Beach, California, keeps the teams connected through weekly conference calls and shared Google Docs. “Some of them are reluctant to admit to their boss what they’re doing because they have full-time jobs,” he says. HTT has been refining aspects of the project for a year now, releasing its updates on its website. A group of math students at Harvard and other schools built a fairly advanced route-optimisation model that plans the cheapest and least nauseating path to link any city-pair. An electric motor company in Portland is working on the capsule’s propulsion system. A team of UCLA architecture students have created scale models of passenger interiors out of wood—but it’s not clear what they’re going to be doing once they’re done with school.
A cost analysis team estimates conservatively that a two-way passenger tube will run $45.3 million per mile. “I believe we’ll find innovations with steel or other materials to bring the price down closer to $20 million per mile,” says Jamen Koos, a Cisco employee who is running HTT’s product management team.
Ahlborn says he has interest from the Mexican government for a 120-mile loop connecting Mexico City to Queretaro, but he’s a long way from commitments. Even so, he’s convinced that his crowdsourcing model will not turn off potential customers. “Our 200 people, who know what they’re doing, are performing better than 30 people full-time,” says Ahlborn. Since August, work at Hyperloop Tech has moved from BamBrogan’s garage in LA’s hipster neighbourhood, Los Feliz, to a 6,500-square foot former ice factory in LA’s gentrifying arts district, just down the block from a topless bar.
A big breakthrough came following the Harry Reid meeting. The senator introduced the group to Anthony Marnell, who has built all of Steve Wynn’s Las Vegas megaproperties and also served as CEO of the Rio Hotel & Casino. His real passion? Returning passenger rail from the West Coast to Vegas. “I’ve been chasing fast trains around the world for almost 30 years,” he says. Over the past 10 years, Marnell and his investors have sunk $50 million of their own money into XpressWest, a proposed 190-mile high-speed link from Sin City to LA’s eastern exurbs, mostly to acquire the right-of-way. A hyperloop experiment would be far more interesting. Negotiations are ongoing. “There’s got to be a way for us to work together,” says Marnell.
A deal there would be important given that Musk’s original proposal—the SF to LA route—isn’t happening. Even discounting the political nuttiness that required 20 years just to get ground broken on California’s high-speed rail project, Musk couldn’t figure out a way to get tubes any closer than an hour from each city. Ramming rights-of-way through already congested cities remains a huge long-term issue with the project. HTT’s artist renderings show Hunger Games-style tubes on pylons crossing New York City’s East River in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Good luck with that. “I’m convinced hyperloop is doable if you ignore the rights-of-way issue —which you can’t,” says Justin Gray, an aerospace engineer at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. That’s part of why Hyperloop Tech is focusing on cargo: Since much of the eastbound cargo that goes into the port of Los Angeles travels via rail or road through Las Vegas, that route offers a natural test.
Those are just the beginning of the issues. On the technical side, the ride could be a barf rocket at Musk’s upper limit of 4.9 meters per second squared (or 0.5 g) of lateral acceleration. Japan’s Tokaido train tops out at 0.67 meters per second squared and goes only 180 miles an hour. You can also forget an entirely carbon-free loop. Musk envisioned lining the tube length with solar panels. According to BamBrogan, the drain from the hyperloop electric propulsion system exceeds what even that many panels could provide. There will need to be grid power, and that means coal.
The technical challenges are also steep. Hyperloop Tech’s capsule is designed to ride on a cushion of air pushed out through the sleds below the capsule. The harddrive industry offers some models, but no one has used air bearings that move at near transonic speeds outside of a lab. (BamBrogan’s team plans to build a test rig this summer in that area.) And they will have to build the equipment that will make the tubes themselves, since no such machine exists. “I need to hire people who are really good at figuring out what they don’t know,” says BamBrogan.
Such is life in a space race. Things that once seemed impossible have a way of getting done. Musk spent $100 million of his own money to build the Falcon 1 rocket, which failed four times before it worked. “It’s time to stop doing photo apps and start doing something for the planet,” says Hyperloop Tech board member Peter Diamandis.
Money won’t be an issue. Pishevar says once he gets liquid on his Uber stake (IPO, anyone?), he will personally fund half of Hyperloop Tech’s $80 million round. If they or any others show results, billions will flood in. “We’re looking at the end of one civilisation and the beginning of another,” says Pishevar. “There’s no turning back.”