Wed 29 Jul 2020 - Impact

Rethinking Resiliency with Hyperloop

Leslie Horwitz

Strategic Communications

Four months ago if we said two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, this would seem reasonable. Now some people are questioning – will we see a different outcome? In the long term we think no. Cities attract people for a reason. They’re powerhouses of economic opportunity and epicenters of art and ideas. Our challenge is: how do we support this future in a way that is sustainable – both economically and for the planet. How do we give people a mass transportation option they will actually prefer: because it is on-demand, ultra-fast, and opens up new doors for the life they want to live.

In asking these questions, we want to share a conversation we had with James Ehrlich, founder of ReGen Villages. When it comes to rethinking resiliency, James is focused on supporting cities by enticing the world’s established and burgeoning middle class with a modern-day idyll –– beautiful, decentralized neighborhoods which generate their own power, grow their own food, and are connected to each other and the larger metro area though a software operating system.

In this interview, we dive into our best hope for flourishing as a species, the secret of centennial, healthy living, and why hyperloop is an essential ingredient.

What’s the most dangerous misconception people have when it comes to sustainable development?

Ehrlich: For years people thought I was crazy (and some still do) for this idea that the future of sustainable living is not in megacities at all but in small, biodynamic, resilient neighborhoods in the peri-urban and rural areas. We need a balance beyond these coastal megacities which are especially brittle in terms of exposure to climate change and are not well equipped to feed 10 billion people.

In 2012, my family was without power for three and a half weeks after Hurricane Sandy in New York. After day three or four –– things got real. The cupboards were bare and the shelves were empty. This was a premise that I'd been talking about for quite some time. There’s a mathematical equation which uses NASA data, called the HANDY model, which is essentially a predictive model for global civilization collapse that couples climate anomalies with rising economic inequality. Economic inequality is most painfully felt in housing shortages and of course, in access to healthy food and clean water. What we’re seeing right now and what I saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy are data points proving the model correct.

But I’m not focused on a theoretical doomsday future. This is about a future that we still have total agency to create. You know, I am also a senior fellow at the NASA Ames Research Center in a collegiate consortium called Opus Novum where they are pretty preoccupied with extraterrestrial planetary living. So I'm a bit of a pain in their ass because I'm sort of known as the terrestrial guy there….

Absolutely. We’ve also got a beautiful planet right here...

Ehrlich: Yes, exactly. And that's what I tell everybody. Here on Earth we don't need exit velocity. And no, you don't need to worry about potable water and breathable air.

Photo courtesy of ReGen Villages Holding.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about eco-villages?

Ehrlich: For one, you don’t have to be a farmer or an engineer to live in the community. The research that I've done over the past 15+ years about eco-villages, intentional communities, co-housing, etc., is that the best, most successful communities have a collective management company that's running things and the people who live in the community pay a monthly association fee. There’s the expectation that for that fee, they have clean water, clean energy, a certain number of baskets of food delivered each month, and that there are organic circular waste systems. Now, of course, if they want to volunteer, then our idea is to use our village operating system software to ledger what each family contributes each month. And then we can then go ahead and reduce their monthly association fee or maybe even offset their mortgage or their rent by what they contribute to the community.

Photo courtesy of ReGen Villages Holding.

Could this model be the new basic income?

Ehrlich: With the future work being so uncertain, these neighborhoods can offer a level of certainty almost on par with universal basic income. Last year, Oxford came out with a study that said that 47% of all employment won't exist anymore in 20 years. I think it's going to be more than that percentage-wise and faster, because we're talking about the replacement – not just of blue-collar employment – but white-collar employment as well.

Our goal is to create a fabric of these kinds of neighborhoods around the world where we can really strive for social affordable housing access with government support and community support, but also that there's a future of work that has to do more about self-worth, where communities can come together, learn new skills, and build new economies.

And that's a really exciting prospect for our future. I'm not a dystopic thinker, as you can tell, even with, you know, COVID 19 and what's happening right now around the world...

Photo courtesy of ReGen Villages Holding.

Yes, COVID-19 has ignited some soul-searching around self-sufficiency in our globalized world –– especially with regard to food, energy and products. How would the ReGen Village model support resilience in a time of crisis?

Ehrlich: I really believe the best case for our species on this planet long term is in the peri-urban and rural areas. These are areas that are in deep decline. And, at the same time, the land is either cheap or free. With prefab building, the right kind of permaculture design, and software to manage the communities, we can really bring the costs down.

And then what happens is when people feel safe, when they have healthy, delicious food delivered to their doorstep that's been harvested right there and feel connected with each other and the community, you have preventative health care. This actually reduces stress and reduces burdens on amygdala responses, which are the kinds of things that boost our immune systems to protect us from viruses getting into us in the first place.

At the same time, with these villages you reduce the physical densification and allow for disconnection at will, where you know your food, energy, and water are covered. More importantly, you know you have a community that supports you. There’s a reason that when we announced our first housing spots, we immediately filled our waiting list.

What would it mean for these villages if suddenly, a city 100 kilometers was reachable in minutes?

Ehrlich: Look, from the moment that I heard about hyperloop, I was giddy. I still am. Because I feel so confident that the moment one of these really gets implemented we can transform these places that some might call “the middle of nowhere” into these thriving, resilient, regenerative areas.

It's not just connecting one mega-city with another, in other words, but that there are places along the way. And with every one of those places along the way, it has been my dream, to be perfectly honest, to build a ReGen Village there (or at least a similar regenerative development using our VillageOS™software). Now you’re talking about something completely transformative: the freedom to enjoy a healthy lifestyle, to feel secure, to live in a beautiful area, and still live within commuting distance of a major metropolis and all its cultural opportunities.

Photo courtesy of ReGen Villages Holding.

As we know, calling out a problem is one thing...proposing a solution is another. As an innovator, what are some challenges you have come up against?

Ehrlich: The truth is – and I think I’m preaching to the choir here – but I'm frustrated with the current status quo on the planet with rules and regulations that are 100, 150 years old.

I'm often thinking about your challenges at Virgin Hyperloop as being, you know, sort of exponential to ours. But we have to change the rules. We have to move these things forward. We must progress as a species that is morally and ethically rising to the occasion to meet the challenges of our technological progress. So, yes, I'm frustrated, but I'm also hopeful and I'm optimistic with our dialogues to fast track permitting so that we can break ground in 2020 and have people move in by 2021.

Absolutely. We’re not just creating an app where you can launch and ask for permission later. This is about real solutions for how people live and move that provide a giant leap forward. The key is in the fusion of these digital and physical systems. What does the digital layer of these villages look like?

Ehrlich: We’ve created our own Village Operating System or VillageOS™. The software has two parts to it:

The first part of the VillageOS™ is focused on planning, and we call this our ReGenerative Villages Simulator (RVS). Currently, there are rules on the books that tell people that they can't put residential capacity on farmland. Our software is intended to show why those rules should be changed –– to show that you can put 200 families on a section of farmland and still generate the same, if not better, productivity yields. And that's the exciting part, because municipalities want that density. They want more housing, because they want more tax base. Rural areas are desperate right now for anything that can rejuvenate what they've got going on. That's also where I see Virgin Hyperloop literally saving the day. Imagine you announce you are building a stop in, wherever it is, rural area. Well, that rural area is now on the map, isn't it? There’s enormous potential to build and permit for these villages, so we can build the right kind of places, not just the same junky subdivisions. And I also really see that the symbiotic relationship between us can then be exported to a lot of other places around the world.

The other critical part of our VillageOS™ software focuses on actually running the physical communities: using both artificial intelligence and machine learning to optimize, improve and mitigate so that eventually these neighborhoods can run themselves. Then we can expand this capability out to a network where – similar to a Tesla model – neighborhoods in similar climate zones will be able to communicate with each other around the world. This border free database could then support additional autonomous improvements.

First you have the moniker of the new middle class in Europe and the U.S. and Canada living like this. And then when we bring this to the global south, they've heard about it. They find it super sexy. They want it. Leveraging local building materials, we think we can build the same 350 homes in sub-Saharan Africa or rural India for an order of magnitude cheaper.

What makes you hopeful for the future?

Ehrlich: Mother Nature is there for us, if we take the requisite steps towards her in that restorative, natural kind of thinking. It's the same symbiotic relationship that supports our thriving and flourishing, which is really the basis of what we're doing now at the Flourishing Project at the School of Medicine at Stanford University. We’re interested in how people live longer, happier and healthier lives. The secret – and there’s real evidence for this with the Blue Zone Research – is people who have access to healthy, delicious food, who have agency, and who are living in these supportive multi-generational communities.

When people have their base in Maslow's hierarchical needs met (which probably nowadays should include coffee and good bandwidth) and are living in an abundant surplus, it brings out generosity. It brings out compassion. It accentuates empathy. This altruism, by the way, is proven from an affective neuroscience perspective to reduce stress, increase happiness and densify brain matter that can combat against all of these degenerative diseases like dementia. That's the kind of society I feel like we want to be part of, and there’s an ocean of humanity who are reaching out to us every day who want this now. People want to feel like they can breathe, that they are safe, and that their neighborhood has their back. So, it’s not a utopia, there’s no such thing. But we can make life really nourishing and beautiful.


  • Q. What is Virgin Hyperloop?

    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.

  • Q. Why are you building a hyperloop?

    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.

  • Q. Why do we need hyperloop now?

    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.

  • Q. How much funding has Virgin Hyperloop received?

    To date, we have received over $400 million.

  • Q. Who are the key investors in Virgin Hyperloop?

    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.

  • Q. Does Virgin Hyperloop have any partners?

    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 Spirit AeroSystems, KPMG, Foster + Partners, Systra, BIG, SNCF, GE, Deutsche Bahn, Black & Veatch, McKinsey, Deloitte, Jacobs, Turner & Townsend, ARUP, and Steer, among others.

  • Q. Is Elon Musk an investor or affiliated with Virgin Hyperloop?

    No, there’s no connection with Elon Musk.

  • Q. How do you plan to scale up operations around the world?

    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.

  • Q. What is hyperloop?

    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.

  • Q. How does hyperloop work?

    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.

  • Q. Has hyperloop technology been proven?

    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.

  • Q. How fast can hyperloop go?

    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.

  • Q. Why keep the tube at low-pressure and not at a perfect vacuum?

    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.

  • Q. How is hyperloop different from high-speed trains?

    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.

  • Q. Is hyperloop safe?

    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.

  • Q. How do you plan to get hyperloop certified?

    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.

  • Q. What will it feel like to ride hyperloop?

    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.

  • Q. What happens if there's a sudden breach in the tube?

    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.

  • Q. Is hyperloop sustainable?

    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.

  • Q. How much energy does hyperloop use?

    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.

  • Q. Where will hyperloop get its power?

    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.

  • Q. How much noise does hyperloop make?

    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

  • Q. Can hyperloop be used for cargo?

    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.

  • Q. What type of cargo would a hyperloop system transport?

    The focus would be on high-priority, on-demand goods – fresh food, medical supplies, electronics, and more.

  • Q. How can hyperloop help transform logistics?

    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.

  • Q. Will the first hyperloops be passenger or cargo systems?

    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.

  • Q. When will hyperloop systems be ready for cargo and passengers?

    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.

  • Q. Where will the first hyperloop get built?

    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.

  • Q. How much will hyperloop cost to build and operate?

    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.

  • Q. How much will hyperloop cost to ride?

    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.

  • Q. How are hyperloop routes selected?

    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.

  • Q. What is the process for getting a passenger route up and running?

    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.

  • Q. How much land does hyperloop require?

    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.

  • Q. With the focus on connecting cities, how will hyperloop support rural communities?

    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.

  • Q. How will hyperloop projects be financed?

    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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