Dr. Kaveh Hosseini
Mon 24 Sep 2018 - Tech
I love vehicles! The more extreme, the better!
Vehicles are the devices that intrinsically weave the three dimensions of space with the one dimension of time. In a sense, they are among the most impactful items that define one’s life experience: where and how you live, work, play, connect, and discover.
Vehicles move people (and cargo) within complex ecosystems of infrastructure and energy. Therefore, designing a vehicle extends well beyond the vehicle itself. It becomes an exercise in designing an entire interactive experience between the passengers and their environments. When done in a thoughtful, elegant, and balanced fashion, the experience can be freeing, exhilarating, and exciting. When done in the opposite fashion, you get congestion, pollution, accidents, long commutes, wasted time, wasted money, wasted energy, in other words, wasted life and wasted opportunity.
My fascination with vehicles steered my education toward engineering. From one fast vehicle to another, I was fortunate enough to move around quite a lot and benefitted from high-quality education, first in Iran, then in France, and finally in the United States. I grew up devouring magazines, books, and films on extreme vehicles that moved faster, further, and higher. When I graduated from Stanford University with a Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Astronautics in 2005, it appeared that software was all the rage, and that relatively little was happening on the hardware front. Mature vehicle concepts were being incrementally optimized by very powerful software, but groundbreaking vehicle concepts seemed to gather little to no traction. Even worse, some of the most iconic vehicles of my childhood started to be retired without any compelling replacements in sight – the SR-71 Blackbird (retired in 1999), the Concorde (retired in 2003), and the Space Shuttle (retired in 2011) are a few examples. It looked as if progress on new vehicles was not simply slowing down, it was reversing! And then, in the midst of the software craze of the early 21st century, hardware started to make a radical comeback. From electric cars, to drones, to rockets, to 3D-printing, we are witnessing a fresh approach to hardware.
One of the defining aspects of Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO) is the focus on radical hardware. Beyond all the fancy animations, numerical simulations, mathematical models, projections, interpolations, conjectures, and hypotheses, there is hardware. You cannot argue with hardware. Either the hardware performs, or it doesn’t. When it performs, it silences all the nay-sayers, experimentally validates analytical and numerical predictions, and pushes the envelope of what was impossible yesterday toward what will be considered as routine tomorrow. If the hardware doesn’t perform, then back to the drawing board (or computer screen) until a better solution is analyzed, designed, manufactured, and tested. This is a key part of VHO’s result-oriented and output-driven mindset.
Nowhere was our dedication to radical hardware more apparent than in the successful completion of our large-scale, full-system hyperloop test campaigns of our DevLoop testbed in the desert of North Las Vegas. On May 12th, 2017, we made history two minutes after midnight when we successfully operated our vehicle using electric propulsion and electromagnetic levitation under near-vacuum conditions. We’ve since run hundreds of tests, acquiring validated knowledge that only comes from real-world testing.
The first hyperloop experimental pod (XP-1) is a vehicle that features a fuselage built on and around a levitating chassis. The fuselage is an aerodynamic shell optimized for high-speed and low-pressure operations inside the DevLoop tube’s specific inner shapes (including levitation tracks, guidance tracks, propulsion stators, etc.). The chassis is a frame that is electrically propelled along the tracks without physical contact via electromagnetic levitation and guidance.
It might sound trivial, but hardware is hard! Using state-of-the-art software, a small team of talented, determined, and well-organized people can quickly perform hundreds of digital iterations on the design and analysis of the abovementioned pieces of hardware. Iterating digitally is relatively simple and increasingly affordable. Once a design is finalized and that a digital creation is ready to be turned into physical hardware, things usually become an order of magnitude harder. For a small startup, it is crucial to allocate the limited internal resources judiciously. One must distinguish between the pieces of hardware that need to be handled in-house, versus the ones that are better accomplished by external partners. Large companies benefit from well-established supply chain networks and external partners. Sometimes the relationships with these external partners take decades to cultivate. Startups don’t have the luxury of solidly established external relationships, networks, and processes. Startups need to establish them from scratch and somewhat on-the-fly.
When we embarked on the DevLoop adventure, I was part of a team that we internally referred to as the Pod Squad. Some of my teammates were working on the chassis, others were designing the suspension, others still were dealing with levitation and propulsion. I was tasked with the design of the fuselage (or aero-shell) of the pod. As you can imagine, there were many stringent constraints on lift, drag, pitching moment, yawing moment, gaps, tolerances, mass, access doors and panels, payload volume, instrumentation accommodation, etc. under various conditions in terms of velocity, pressure, pitch angle, yaw angle, acceleration, deceleration, you name it! My teammates and I came up with smart workflows that allowed us to parameterize and automate the design and simulation of hundreds of geometric shapes under a wide spectrum of conditions. While doing so, we also designed, deployed, and incrementally expanded our in-house parallel supercomputer to run these simulations. Once we had a design for the fuselage, everybody was so busy with so many tasks that it wasn’t clear who had the bandwidth to take on the task of finding the right external partners to manufacture it. Manufacturing a fully functional piece of hardware to be seamlessly integrated onto our levitating chassis, according to our stringent time, budget, and quality constraints was a rather daunting task and no one potential subcontractor seemed to check all the boxes.
One of the characteristics of working at a startup is that you don’t “work” at a startup. You live the startup. In our case, you live, breathe, eat, drink, worry, think, dream, imagine, talk hyperloop in a passionate and sometimes obsessive drive. It is always in the back of your mind. With statistics stacked against you and all the nay-sayers wishing your failure, you could use some luck in addition to all the hard work. Sometimes that all-consuming passionate, obsessive, and driven mindset “provokes luck” and you find a solution where you weren’t looking. I tend to think about it as provoking serendipity!
Despite what you might think, sometimes there is work-life balance in startups. On a serendipitous occasion, while worrying about the fuselage of XP-1, in November 2016, I took my two daughters Ariana (aged 6) and Anahita (aged 2) to the Los Angeles Auto Show during the weekend. After all, kids must be exposed to innovative engineering and beautifully-designed vehicles at an early age! At the entrance of the show, there was a very inspiring display by an LA-based startup company by the name of Divergent 3D (or D3D). They showcased their astonishing 3D-printing capabilities with their Blade supercar and various other beautifully topology-optimized 3D-printed parts.
My mind started to race and connect the dots. Here was an LA-based hardware startup, with a daring and dynamic team, a fascinatingly fresh approach to manufacturing, and the capability to produce such beautiful and functional pieces of hardware.
With my kids in tow, I waited patiently in line, pulling Ariana’s hand with my left hand and pushing Anahita’s stroller with my right hand. Eventually I got to briefly chat with Kevin Czinger, Divergent 3D’s CEO. I knew I was speaking to a potential future partner.
A few emails and phone calls later, Kevin Czinger and Broc TenHouten (Divergent 3D’s COO) rallied some of their best talents and visited us at Hyperloop One with excellent presentation materials, proposals, schedules, and options. We got right to work.
Both companies being based in LA gave us a tremendous advantage. Over several months of collaboration, we benefitted from weekly or bi-weekly face-to-face meetings at our respective facilities. In this digital age of video-conferencing, there’s still nothing like in-person communication. It is these very shared experiences we are working to enable here at VHO.
The test footage speaks for itself. Divergent 3D went above and beyond to deliver the XP-1 fuselage with the utmost professional execution. This interaction is emblematic of the positive mindset and can-do attitude that is so prevalent among startups that deeply believe they are on a mission to disrupt the status quo to make the world a better place.
A couple of months ago, our Chairman Sir Richard Branson was visiting VHO’s Los Angeles office. One of my colleagues asked him what was common between all the different Virgin companies. He said something that I have been pondering since. He said something along these lines: “The people! A company is a company of people, you are in people’s company.”
What we are doing is extreme: building the first new mode of major transportation in 100 years. It is not technology, but people that make the impossible, possible.
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We're a privately-held company on a mission to create fast, effortless journeys that expand possibilities and eliminate the barriers of distance and time.
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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