Wed 31 May 2017 - Team

7 Transport Trends I’m Watching

Doug Chey

SVP Systems Development

My job at Hyperloop One is to lead the teams building our software platforms and safety systems. It’s one of the more challenging tasks I’ve ever taken on, and there’s a lot of future-proofing to do. I just got back from a whirlwind tour of some future-of-transportation conferences with my mind blown, but a healthy amount of skepticism confirmed. The overlap of automotive, robotics, artificial intelligence, sensors and Internet-of-things is one of the most complex spaces in tech right now, but it’s partly my job to interpret what other companies are saying and handicapping the chances of any of this stuff happening. Here’s my take on a few trends:

1. Safety & Self Driving Cars

Conventional wisdom holds that self-driving cars will be vastly safer than human driving. Yes, but. While fully autonomous cars will be on the road in a few years, I do not believe they will be safer than humans on public roads for many more years. There are several reasons for this. The compute, network, and storage resources, as well as the algorithms, are all in their infancy and that creates areas of concern. What about the “school’s out” problem? When the school bell rings, and everyone just pours into the street. Autonomous vehicle processors cannot handle that kind of problem in a quick fashion. The answer in that situation, as it is all too often for autonomous vehicles, is just to stop the car. Humans can edge forward and make decisions for what to do.

One big issue is that autonomous vehicle systems are only at a level of sophistication of drawing 3D blocks around objects. I think it will be crucial for the technology to improve the algorithms so that bodies become more like bodies and less like stick figures in the “eyes” of the computers driving the cars. Given my gaming background and that most technology is built on gaming technology (hardware like Nvidia, software like Havoc, etc.), I feel like autonomous is still in the age of Pong and we need at least Space Invaders tech to make this work. Luckily for Hyperloop One, we don’t have to deal with a heterogeneous environment. We build and monitor the equivalent of the cars and the road and the city and the signals. Our set of variables is far smaller. We can get away with a Pong--for now.

2. Future of Cars

The great debate: Will there be more cars or fewer cars? I have heard arguments for both. On the one hand, more autonomy and more direct-to-destination requests will put more cars on the road. On the other hand, there could be a lot fewer cars if more people take up ride-sharing. A compelling argument for there being way fewer cars on the road came from this recent RethinkX report that estimates a drop in at the number of passenger vehicles on American roads from 247 million in 2020 to 44 million in 2030. As a person who is not a millennial, I love my private space. I won’t be contributing to that trend. Even though uberPOOL and Lyft Line are fast-growing services, there are a lot more of us non-millennials not sharing, so I think there will be more cars.

3. Unforeseen Impact of Self Driving Vehicles

You can plan on autonomous cars impacting the urban infrastructure in unplanned ways. An autonomous car may drive down the street in the same location over and over again and wear down the road in one place. Self-driving electric cars will likely be traveling many more miles than traditional vehicles, as they will never need to park until they need a recharge. If AVs do excessive damage to our roads, we’re going to need more creative policies to pay for any additional upkeep. Chris Urmson, CEO of Aurora Innovation and former director for self-driving cars at Google, suggests charging a user fee per mile driven. Charge 2 cents per mile and suddenly the three trillion miles driven in the U.S. amounts to $60 Billion in revenue per year.

Also, there are many random unanswered questions about seat belts. What happens if you unbuckle? Does the car stop? Does someone come on the PA? What if it's a shared vehicle? How do you do maintenance? Who pays for the electricity? One solution for that latter problem could be turning roads themselves into refueling stations. Israel is currently testing technology that would allow electric vehicles to recharge while they drive using inductive charging. The real value proposition is to make wireless charging a two-way street and capture back the energy generated from braking. The technology is on its way, but the cost is critical here.

Hyperloop Extends Transporation Range

Cities in the not-so-distant future will be swarming with connected vehicle “clouds,” but in between those metro areas, we are facing an information and service gap. That’s where we come in. Hyperloop One plans to build the "range extender" for autonomous urban mobility. Let’s say you’re in your office in Berlin and it’s your wife’s birthday and you want to take her to this great new gastropub in Hamburg for dinner. Six o’clock rolls around, and you tap your phone, an Uber picks you up at your office, drives home to get your spouse, and off you both go to the Hauptbahnhof Hyperloop One portal (our term for the station). Your self-driving Uber has already contacted the portal via Hyperloop’s “autonomous vehicle interface” or AVI, and just as you arrive at the portal, your Hyperloop pod is waiting for you or, better yet, your Uber slips right into the Hyperloop itself. Security and authentication and payment are all settled in the backend via the AVI. Your pod accelerates gradually to airline speed, and you arrive at the Hamburg portal in 20 minutes. Your Uber drives right out of the Hyperloop portal and straight to your dinner. It’s direct, autonomous, ultrafast intercity travel and the doors only open twice, once to let you in and once to let you out. It’s the closest thing to teleportation or a private jet experience for the masses.

That’s the long-term vision. We obviously have a ton of engineering work to do. Our plans for the Hyperloop AVI and platform also incorporate other data services such as vehicle-cloud supply/demand forecasting, rebalancing of connected vehicles between cities (imagine Ubers or Lyfts taking themselves between Chicago and St. Louis when there’s a big rock concert or baseball game), pricing information sharing and emergency/urgent care. As FedEx taught all of us, the information around the package is as important as the package itself. Same goes with autonomous vehicles and their passengers.

5. Passeng & Delivery Drones

I think what’s going on around autonomous vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicles is pretty cool. The vehicles are in development now--Uber is targeting 2020 for its first passenger tests--but I think there’s a growing consensus that they won’t get past regulatory approval for passenger flights at least 10 to 15 years. Package delivery by drones will come much sooner. Check out this concept video UPS is showing about how drones might work launched from the top of their trucks to extend a driver’s reach per trip. Amazon Prime Air has already begun limited drone delivery trials in Cambridge, England. DHL has run three tests for its parcelcopter in Germany.

For passenger service, the issue is safety—things fall out of the sky at high speed—and the need to coordinate a lot of regulatory and software systems among the airlines, consumer drone manufacturers, and the new autonomous VTOL systems makers. I think autonomous ground-based vehicles will get full regulatory approval long before passenger VTOLs will be able to fly in the same airspace as everything else.

6. Multimodal Transportation Hubs

Transportation and urban planners dream of connecting their mobility grids at strategic hubs in the center of town. Transit systems lose roughly 30% of ridership any time passengers are forced to switch modes. That puts a premium on smart station and multimodal hub design to achieve more fluid movement. The complexity will go up once we introduce AVs to the mix of human-driven cars, commuter rail and metros, bikes, Hyperloops, and everything else can come together as a transfer point to create a better passenger experience.

Multimodal stations aren’t new — think Penn Station in N.Y., Union Station in D.C., or San Francisco’s new Transbay Terminal, which will connect 11 different Bay Area systems. New transit hubs are emerging as economic development opportunities, as well, to stand alone as attractions during off-peak hours. The Oculus, pictured above, has sparked controversy for its price tag but is a prime example of how cities are integrating multimodal centers into city design.

7. The End of Traffic Lights

Why do we need bottleneck intersections if vehicles are talking to other vehicles or the infrastructure (lights, road)? AV networks can accelerate and decelerate cars as they head into an intersection to keep everything flowing in both directions continuously and without collisions, cutting down on pollution and delay. A group from MIT, the Swiss Institute of Technology and the Italian National Research Council came up with an idea for a slot-based approach called Light Traffic. Their system would use sensors to keep driverless cars at a safe distance from each other and put the cars in virtual slots as they approach the intersection.

These are the smart mobility trends I’m keeping an eye on. We’d love to hear yours. Drop a comment to us on Hyperloop One’s Twitter or Facebook page.

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  • 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 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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