Mon 18 Mar 2019 - Impact
A Q&A with OP Agarwal on what type of thinking will get us out of our cars
OP Agarwal is an ardent supporter of public transportation, just not the way you might think. As our Mumbai–Pune hyperloop project progresses, we had the privilege of speaking with OP to discuss the future of mass transportation and how emerging technologies like hyperloop can best support India’s exceptional growth trajectory.
OP Agarwal is a highly respected expert and thought leader on the forefront of the new urban mobility paradigm. emerging in India. For three decades, OP served as a member of the Indian Administrative Service and is currently CEO of World Resources Institute India (WRI), a research organization that turns big ideas into action at the nexus of environment, economic opportunity, and human well-being.
With India’s 14 existing megaregions. projected to hold 17% of its population while producing 40% of the nation’s GDP by 2030, we discussed how intra-city and inter-city transportation can support the rise of India’s megaregions and the 100 million jobs needed by 2030.
Agarwal: I know what Delhi feels like today. Thinking about 50 million people...that kind of number just can’t fit in a single city. These numbers will spread. Many Indian cities are already growing outwards, expanding to include satellite cities. People are living in one place and working at another which is much further away primarily because housing is easier in the satellite city and various other quality of life factors.
You have an economic interdependence emerging between urban areas. By 2050, I think we will see not individual cities, but instead large urban clusters of 150-190 million people, with rapid transit connecting industries and residences over a much wider geographic area.
With these much larger urban clusters, there will be a critical need for rapid connectivity. And that's where we need to start thinking of the kind of project that Virgin Hyperloop One is doing.
The spatial constraints will play out two-fold: One, within the city we need to focus on systems which will persuade people to give up their cars by giving them a public transport system which meets their quality expectations. We simply don’t have the space to expand the current fleet of personal vehicles. Two, we need to start thinking about transportation systems at a regional level and provide rapid connectivity between city clusters.
If you don't have good connectivity and public transport networks within the city, people will tend to take their own way. If you don’t improve rapid inter-city transport, you can’t support the economic interdependence of the clusters. Transportation fundamentally opens up a wider set of opportunities. When you can connect clusters of cities, your labor market, your employment market, is much bigger. People have more choices.
Agarwal: India has about 18% of the world's population and only 2% of the world's land mass. We really have to get out of this concept of individually owned cars and motorbikes as we have in India; we simply don’t have the space. We need to move towards systems which are much more focused on mobility as a service, for example one where you buy a ride – across various modes – vs buying a car.
We are currently trapped in an urban transportation paradigm, where public transport is seen as an option only for those who can’t afford a personal vehicle. We need to shift this perspective if we expect people to give up their cars. There must be an affordability aspect to public transport, but it’s also fundamentally about a perception of quality. There are certain quality parameters people are looking for: they want a seat on the vehicle, they want a schedule that aligns to their travel pattern (not the other way around), women don't want to be harassed. We need to start working very systematically and aggressively to deliver this quality of service. It doesn’t need to be one single mode, but rather a multimodal system that can take care of your origin-destinations with a comfortable ride. That is when people will give up their cars. Not just because it limits congestion or air pollution, but because it makes their lives more enjoyable.
Agarwal: I think the public sector can be very good at determining what kind of transport system we want and where we want it. Once they've done that, they should contract services from the private sector. The private sector can provide a level of operational efficiency that public systems cannot. These two have to somehow come together – I think the London model is a good model.
The London model highlights how the issue of governance is very important. Contrary to London’s unified structure, Delhi has as many as 11 agencies that work on transportation alone. Today, in Delhi, we have one company running the Metro and we actually have two companies running buses. There are gaps in between. The question becomes, “who's going to build and manage that interchange station? Is it going to be the Metro company or is it going to be the bus company?” That’s why I think an overarching agency that can take responsibility for transport in its entirety would be most effective.
The jurisdiction for this agency could even extend to the entire multi-city cluster. For example, if we want the hyperloop between Mumbai and Pune, we will need somebody who will provide intra-city movement within Pune and within Mumbai. I think that's the role for the government, not to operate those systems, but to instead provide strong oversight and some scheme of rewards and penalties to ensure proper coverage and quality service.
Agarwal: I think the transition to electric would be a good thing to happen in India. For a number of reasons, number one of course is air quality. 14/15 of the world’s most polluted cities, based on air quality, are in India. Second, we spend a huge amount on importing petroleum fuels and international price changes play havoc with our budgets. Third, there are climate change benefits with electric mobility and as the country is moving towards the higher share of renewables in its electricity mix it makes more sense to have electric vehicles.
India has a unique opportunity for electrification that might look very different than the rest of the world. This is driven by two factors: one, our motor vehicle fleet, and two, the nature of trips in India. Around 75% of our vehicle fleet are two wheelers. Typically, no one would do more than 40-50 kilometers per day on a motorbike. Densities within Indian cities are relatively higher so trip lengths are lower. This means the range anxiety you see in the West, this “how will I be able to travel 100 km on one charge” is not as much of a factor in India.
This opens up the opportunity for smaller, cheaper batteries, or even batteries rental/swapping schemes which I think could be a very beneficial model in India. While still early stages, business are beginning to explore this market. The potential is enormous for a majority electric vehicle fleet which allows for much lower operating costs.
Agarwal: That is a very good question and something that not many have thought of. But of course, it's not going to be electrification overnight. It's something that will take 10 or 15 years.
After this 10 or so year period, the question then becomes not only ‘how much electricity are you using’ but also ‘when are you using it?’ It’s is an issue of the instantaneous load. Unlike water which can be stored and used when you want, with electricity today, you can't do that. So, at some point in time we will need to see time-of-day pricing for electricity, where electricity is priced differently depending on what is the peak and what is your off peak. This way demand can adjust to when the prices are the lowest. This scheme would open up opportunities for a battery swapping market where you can ride your motorbike until the battery runs out and then swap for a charged one at a nearby retailer. The retailer could then maximize its profit by charging when prices and demand for electricity are lowest.
Agarwal: This immediately attracted me. We always think of public transport that's fixed route, fixed schedule. Why can't we get a little more flexible on that? Why is Uber Pool not public transport? If I take one more person along with me, it's public transport.
The Motor Vehicles Act that we have in India, the regulation that we have in India, needs to catch up with the kind of changes happening in the transportation market. The kind of thinking that went behind the Motor Vehicles Act, largely in the 1930s, has to change in the 2030s!
Creating high quality intra-city public transport system need not be Metro Rail alone, or standard public buses alone. We could think of app-based services, of vehicles carrying about 8-10 people that could provide on-demand shared rides throughout the city.
You know the dream I have is if I want to travel say from wherever I am to the airport, for example, and say to this app, “look I have 15 minutes and I have a million dollars that I can pay the system” then it would immediately tell me “your helicopter is waiting for you right there.” Or, if I say “look I have seven hours in which I can reach my destination and I'm not willing to pay anything,” it will give me a walking route. Between these two extremes can we think of a system where an app can give me choices which deliver a perfect level of service beyond using a personal vehicle.
This type of service is increasingly demanded. The younger generation is not enamored by the car or the motorbike. The younger generation, in India at least, is looking for a smartphone. They have no time for driving but they need all the time for the Twitter and Facebook – I think that's very good. My daughter used to work in Bangalore and I kept pushing her, “buy a car, buy a car." I told her “I'll buy it for you, I'll pay for it.” She refused. She said “no. why do I want a car?” Finally, she said “if you want to give me something get me a good smartphone.” That's where I see hope in the younger generation and the wave of opportunity for India's next urban mobility paradigm.
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There are too many people caught bumper-to-bumper in traffic, who have to make a hard choice with their family on where to live and work, and who are limited in their access to experiences and opportunities. We're building a system that will give back time and deliver the travel experience of the future.
The number of cars is set to double worldwide by 2040, same with air and trucking. We are already dealing with the effects of pollution, lack of access, and congestion. If we only invest in the same technologies we’ve had for more than a century, tomorrow will look like today, only much worse. It’s been over a century since the Wright Brothers first showed us human flight was possible. It’s time for a new era in transportation capable of carrying us forward for the next 100 years.
To date, we have received over $400 million.
A major investor of ours is DP World, a leading enabler of global trade who sees the potential of sustainable hyperloop-enabled cargo systems. Additionally, we are backed by the Virgin Group, an industry leader across rail, aviation, ships, and even spacecrafts. For more on our investors, visit the company page.
Virgin Hyperloop One is the only hyperloop company that has a strategic partnership with a mass transportation company, the Virgin Group, an industry leader across rail, aviation, ships, and even spacecrafts. Another key partner of ours is DP World, a leading enabler of global trade who sees the potential of sustainable hyperloop-enabled cargo systems. Other industry-leading partners include KPMG, Foster + Partners, Systra, BIG, SNCF, GE, Deutsche Bahn, Black & Veatch, McKinsey, Deloitte, Jacobs, Turner & Townsend, ARUP, and Steer, among others.
No, there’s no connection with Elon Musk.
We aren't just building a hyperloop; we're building a network of public and private partners to scale an integrated supply chain ecosystem. Our business model is based on partnerships that create local jobs and opportunities for those who choose to invest in this technology. We are working at the highest level of governments around the globe to put in place commercial agreements to make hyperloop a reality.
Hyperloop is a new mode of transportation designed to eliminate the barriers of distance and time for both people and freight. It can travel at speeds approaching 700mph, connecting cities like metro stops - and it has zero direct emissions. The journeys can be booked on demand so there’s no wait time or delays.
With hyperloop, vehicles, called pods, accelerate gradually via electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube. The pod floats along the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds for long distances due to ultra-low aerodynamic drag.
On May 12th, 2017, we made history two minutes after midnight when we successfully launched our vehicle using electromagnetic propulsion and levitation under near-vacuum conditions at our full-scale test site in the Nevada Desert. We've since run hundreds of tests, acquiring validated knowledge that only comes from real-world testing. For more info on DevLoop, our 500 m test track, visit our progress page.
We estimate that the top speed for a passenger vehicle or light cargo will be 670 miles per hour or 1080 kilometers per hour. That is about 3 times faster than high-speed rail and 10-15 times faster than traditional rail. The average speed vehicles travel will vary based on the route and customer requirements.
A perfect vacuum would decrease the drag on the vehicle even more, but not significantly. We have already gotten rid of 99.9% of the air in the tube. Lower levels of vacuum than this are important if you are performing scientific experiments, but the cost would not be worthwhile.
Hyperloop is an entirely new mode - think the best of trains, planes, and the metro. Hyperloop is on-demand, offering flexible travel schedules with no stops, no transfers, and no weather delays – all at speeds about 3 times faster than high-speed-rail and less cost. Hyperloop is highly efficient, with a smaller environmental impact than high-speed rail because the closed system can be tunneled below or elevated above ground, avoiding dangerous at-grade crossings. The VHO system is 100% electric and can reach higher speeds than high-speed rail for less energy due to our proprietary electric motor and low-drag environment.
Fast, effortless journeys go hand-in-hand with journeys where everything works reliably without interference, and where all passengers feel comfortable and safe. The Virgin Hyperloop is designed to be inherently safer than other modes, with multiple redundancies in place. Our system operates autonomously in an enclosed tube and is not susceptible to weather delays, accidents from at-grade crossings, human error, or power outages. Our proprietary high-speed switching architecture eliminates unsafe track configurations and moving trackside parts, a failure point of traditional rail with mechanical switches.
As new mode, we have to prove our safety case to regulators and work with them to develop a regulatory framework, so passengers can ride the hyperloop in years not decades. We are encouraged by the support we are seeing at the local and federal level around the world to support hyperloop certification based on the fundamentals of safe operating that are already standard practice. In March 2019, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, created the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology (NETT) Council to explore the regulation and permitting of hyperloop technology to bring this new form of mass transportation to the United States. This Council is an important step forward in recognizing hyperloop is a new transportation mode and that we need to shift our mindset and acknowledge that this technology does not fit into a regulatory structure that is over 100 years old. The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DGMOVE) has also been leading discussions with hyperloop companies to advance regulatory standards and, in India, the Principal Scientific Advisor (PSA), Prof. Vijayraghavan, has set up an independent committee called the Consultative Group on Future of Transportation (CGFT) to explore the regulatory path for hyperloop. For more, visit our regulatory progress pages.
While flying through a tube at more than 1000km/h might seem like a thrill ride, the truth is we are able to mitigate any uncomfortable acceleration forces within our controlled environment. The journey will be so smooth, you could sip a coffee the whole time without spilling a single drop. Normal acceleration and deceleration of 0.20 Gs will feel similar to a train. As a comparison, flooring a typical sedan gives between 0.4-0.5 Gs and commercial airplanes see 0.3-0.5Gs depending on the plane and load.
Pods will continue to travel safely to the next portal even with a large breach. Our response to a breach would be to intentionally repressurize the tube with small valves places along the route length while engaging pod brakes to safely bringing all pods to rest before it is deemed safe to continue to the next portal. A sustained leak could impact performance (speed) but would not pose a safety issue due to vehicle and system architectural design choices. This assessment is based in solid understanding and analysis of the complex vehicle load behaviors during such an event.
Without a massive leap forward, pollution from the transportation industry is expected to almost double by 2050 - well above the carbon budget. By combining an ultra-efficient electric motor, magnetic levitation, and a low-drag environment, the VHO system can reach airline speeds for 5-10x less energy (depends on route length) and can go faster than high-speed rail using less energy. In regions like the Middle East, we could power the system completely by solar panels which cover the tube. As fighting against climate change becomes an existential issue for cities across the globe, hyperloop will create a new, shared, electric mobility model for helping to permanently reform an industry with some of the world’s highest carbon emissions.
We are designing Virgin Hyperloop to be more efficient than other modes of transportation. Modern jetliners use up to 10 times the energy we use per passenger-mile over the entire journey. We can cruise at 500 miles per hour for less energy (per passenger) than an electric car doing 60 miles per hour. At peak speed, the VHO system consumes approximately 75 watt hours per passenger kilometer (Wh/pax-km). To put this in perspective, the fastest conventional maglev train travels at about half our speed and consumes 33% more energy.
Our system is 100% electric with zero direct emissions. We're energy-agnostic. Our system can draw power from whichever energy sources are available along the route and support a transition to a renewable energy-powered future. In regions like the Middle East, we can completely power the system with solar panels which cover the tube.
It’s similar those new electric vehicles that are so quiet they need to create noise to indicate movement. With hyperloop, we eliminate sources of mechanical noise, like wheels on track, and we actually have a sound barrier inherent in our tube design
DP World Cargospeed is a global brand for hyperloop-enabled cargo systems operated by DP World and enabled by Virgin Hyperloop technology. These systems will deliver freight at the speed of flight and closer to the cost of trucking for fast, sustainable, and efficient delivery of palletized cargo.
The focus would be on high-priority, on-demand goods – fresh food, medical supplies, electronics, and more.
With DP World Cargospeed, deliveries can be completed in hours versus days with greater reliability and fewer delays. It will expand freight transportation capacity by connecting with existing modes of road, rail, ports, and air transport, and will provide greater connectivity with manufacturing parks, economic zones, distribution centers, and regional urban centers. This can shrink inventory lead times, help reduce finished goods inventory, and cut required warehouse space and cost by 25%. DP World Cargospeed networks can also enable just-in-time, agile manufacturing practices.
The Virgin Hyperloop is unique in that it doesn’t need to be passenger-only or cargo-only. We are designing a mixed-use system that fully utilizes system capacity while maximizing economic and social benefits. However, it is possible to run cargo commercial operations while certification and regulation are still ongoing for passenger use.
We are working with the most visionary governments around the world to make sure you can ride the hyperloop in years, not decades. Our goal is to have operational systems in the late 2020s. Our ability to meet that goal will depend on how fast the regulatory and statutory processes move.
We are working with visionary governments and partners around the world to make hyperloop a reality today. To learn more about our projects around the world, visit our progress page.
Capital and operating costs will range widely based on the route. We recently released a study that showed our linear costs are 60-70% that of high-speed rail projects. In addition, we expect the operational costs to be significantly lower than existing forms of transportation.
It’s simple – if it’s not affordable, people won't use it. We are looking to build something that will expand opportunities for the masses, so they can live in one city with their family and work in another. Currently, that kind of high-speed transport is not feasible for most people. The exact ticket price will vary for each route, but a recent study showed that riding a hyperloop in Missouri could cost less than the gas needed to drive.
We are in the business of serving local needs, not the other way around. Public and private support is key. In some cases, we will respond to solicited bids with partners when we feel the technology matches the project’s objectives. In other cases, we will make an unsolicited bid for a project when we see that hyperloop could offer a unique solution to market needs.
While the technology is different, the process for building a hyperloop is similar to that of building a highway, railway, or any other type of linear infrastructure. The first stage is project development. This phase includes feasibility studies, and then more detailed engineering reports and environmental impact studies. Once a project is approved to move forward, a consortium is formed to finance and deliver on the project.
Many infrastructure projects succeed or fail based on right-of-way issues. We are designing a system that requires only about half the right-of-way as high-speed rail and can more easily adapt to existing right-of-ways. At high speeds, the VHO system has a 4.5 times tighter turn radius compared to high-speed rail and can climb grades that are 6 times steeper, reducing the disturbance at crossings. Portals will be purposely integrated into and support existing communities and landscapes. Low noise levels will expand opportunities to build hyperloops closer to the city center.
Hyperloop also holds enormous promise for rural communities. Virgin Hyperloop systems can be built below or above ground, which means no one’s farm needs to be cut in half. Our system enables rural areas to retain residents, who can now have more access to urban job centers, educational opportunities, and health care facilities. Additionally, hyperloop could enable freight distribution centers to be placed in rural areas, leading to job growth and industrial clusters. After a system is built, there is the opportunity to add additional on and off-ramps, supporting a greater number of people along the route.
Transportation infrastructure has traditionally relied on extensive government funding. This is because the benefits of clean, safe, and efficient transportation are enjoyed by the entire community, not just the user buying a ticket. However, most existing mass transportation modes are unprofitable and hindered by existing infrastructure built in the past century or by legacy systems. We want to change that and are focused on public-private partnerships. By developing a new mode of transportation from scratch, we're able to leverage technological developments that have occurred in the last century, especially the IT revolution. We're able to keep maintenance costs low, energy efficiency high, and transport tens of thousands of passengers per hour. This keeps margins and accessibility high, contributing to more financially attractive returns than if the corridor was served by existing modes. These benefits aren’t just hypothetical. While this is an exceptional case due to high demand, a third-party evaluation found that our Mumbai-Pune Hyperloop Project could be funded 100% by private capital. In the U.S. we see enormous potential to attract investment from the private sector, leveraging public investments. Involving government stakeholders as well as potential private investors early in the project development process is critical.
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