I took a slow-moving bus to watch Hyperloop demo its fast-moving train

I took a slow-moving bus to watch Hyperloop demo its fast-moving train

Armed with an iPhone, a Moleskine notebook and my trusty MacBook, I boarded a bus (one of many) with about 60 other journalists from nearly every national news source or tech publication I could think of. We were joined by investors, industry analysts and the kinds of people that ‘knew a guy,’ and got to witness Hyperloop One’s first open-air propulsion test.

The bus is 45 minutes late leaving the hotel, and there’s a growing chorus of discontent from everyone on board. After all, we’re going to witness early-stage testing of next-gen public transportation reportedly capable of 700+ mile-per-hour speeds, bridging Los Angeles and San Francisco in about 30 minutes.

The bus is going to take us 18 miles into the desert in about the same timeframe.

Our chariot
Our chariot

Hyperloop One Co-Founder Shervin Pishevar obviously knows this pain. He’s recognized it, compartmentalized it, and aimed to do something about making it go away — for good.

It’s not Pishevar’s first gamble in tech. The legendary Silicon Valley investor is probably best known as an early stage investor in Uber, a company many of his peers thought was mostly hype.

Seems that one turned out okay for him.

Small beginnings

“All big things have small beginnings. We’re completely humbled by the story of how this company began,” said Pishevar at a press event the day before the test.

The idea first came about when California announced its intent to build a high-speed rail project, a move that Elon Musk denounced via blog post as an expensive and slow alternative to another concept from over a century earlier. Musk himself improved upon the original concept and later dubbed the airless tube system Hyperloop.

hyperloop

In 2013, Pishevar unknowingly set in motion a series of events that lead us to where we are today. On a trip with Musk, a simple conversation about a technology concept referred to as Hyperloop led Pishevar to perhaps the most important question of his life: “what are you going to do with it?”

Musk didn’t have bold plans for Hyperloop, in fact, he told Pishevar that he was going to open source the concept, a move that could (and did) lead to another company to developing Musk’s vision. Musk was putting his all into running Tesla and Solar City in addition to trying to wrangle six children and maintain some semblance of sanity in the process.

Pishevar asked what Musk thought about him starting a company using the technology, to which Musk basically replied: do it.

That was three years ago.

What was once a concept is now a team, a team with top talent, infectious enthusiasm and an eye on the future. Led by some of the who’s-who in the tech world — Rob Lloyd (Cisco), Brogan BamBrogan (Space X), Josh Giegel (Virgin Galactic) and others — Pishevar grew a company from an open source concept, to two testing facilities (Los Angeles and Las Vegas) and 150 engineers, designers and builders.

hyperloop-executives
From left to right, Pishevar, Lloyd, BamBrogan

“Everyone we’ve hired on our engineering team has come from a background of building things [not just analyzing them],” BamBrogan said.

In a day where unicorns are sometimes built in months, it’s important to remember that apps and Saas businesses don’t often require regulatory approval, teams of engineers or extended testing to ensure their customers aren’t rocketed off a track at 700+ miles per hour.

It’s real; it’s happening now

It’d be hard to ignore the hurdles Hyperloop One still faces — or the ambitious timeline — but Pishevar and BamBrogan are quick to point out the system is already viable. We’re not waiting on dramatic achievements in science to move the project forward.

Instead, the team’s major challenges are going to come from a sluggish regulatory environment, a battle over land rights and proving to the public — and backers — that this is not only safe, but a better alternative than all existing forms of travel.

“It’s real; it’s happening now,” said Pishevar.

“This was an idea in 2013, just a thought from a conversation to an idea on paper to now actual infrastructure. You’re going to see tomorrow the first step in a major milestone to making hyper loop a reality.”

Although Hyperloop One was cleared by the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada recently, the slow pace of the powers that be — in addition to an upcoming struggle to secure land to build — could ultimately lead the company to greener pastures overseas. While Los Angeles to San Francisco was widely considered to be the $6 billion+ proving ground for a finished Hyperloop, it’s looking just as likely that we could see the first leg being built and tested in Europe.

hyperloop-tube-construction

As if that weren’t enough, Hyperloop One also has competition to deal with in the lesser-known, but equally ambitious Hyperloop Transport Technologies (HTT), a company that announced major news of its own this week that it had reached a deal to license magnetic technology from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

A Kitty Hawk moment

Where we are now standing is a dusty tract of land generously known as North Las Vegas, a baron wasteland nearly 45 minutes outside of the strip. Here, you’re just as likely to see vultures feeding on roadkill as you are another human being. In a word, it’s desolate.

Seated with members of the press, investors and tech industry insiders, there’s a buzz in the crowd that’s palpable. You can feel the enthusiasm and it’s made even more apparent by raucous applause and a gallery that hangs on every word as Hyperloop One’s top execs make pointed comparisons to Kitty Hawk and the trans-continental railroad.

They’re not wrong.

For my generation, this is our moon landing, our Kitty Hawk, our trans-continental railroad — hell, it’s our steam engine. If successful, Hyperloop One changes the landscape of transportation and forces its way into the conversation as one of the greatest inventions of all time.

If, it’s successful.

An eye on the future

A mockup of the sled used in Hyperloop One's Propulsion test
A mockup of the sled used in Hyperloop One’s Propulsion test

Unlike the what we’ve been told about the finished product, today’s test doesn’t feature pods levitating above tracks while flying through tubes at break-neck speeds; today’s test is a steel sled, on wheels, riding on a train track. In fairness, the sled is set to travel over 100 mph in all of two seconds while pulling 2.4 G’s.

It also has enough electricity flowing through it to require two large truck trailer-sized generators. We’re told this much electricity could easily kill you if you get too close.

Pishevar takes the stage, as does CTO Brogan BamBrogan and CEO Rob Lloyd. Each waxes poetic about creating infrastructure to support this revolutionary transportation system. The system, BamBrogan says, could be carrying cargo by 2018 and humans by 2021 — if legislators continue to cooperate.

“An operational Hyperloop system is fully controllable. The point of this test isn’t just to move this sled, it’s to engineer a custom propulsion system that is scalable to a  production commercializable Hyperloop. That’s really the goal is we’re really bringing cost of this down by custom engineering and making sure that what we engineer now is scalable for both passengers and freight,” BamBrogan says.

The test goes off without a hitch as the sled tops 100 mph and comes to an abrupt stop in sand at the end of the track.

The crowd goes nuts, the company’s executives hug and high-five, and we’re all left with the feeling we’ve witnessed something truly extraordinary. In fact, it’s explaining this feeling to those who weren’t in attendance the proves most difficult.

While what we’d just seen reverberated through the crowd and led to lively conversations on the bus ride back to the hotel, it’s challenging to convey the sense of amazement we all felt while watching a hunk of metal being shot into a sandbox.

In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t the test. Maybe what we’d witnessed was just a piece of a larger puzzle that — if only for a moment — made each of us marvel at what humans are actually capable of. In that moment, achievement was all that mattered, and on a Wednesday in the Nevada desert, Hyperloop One took the first major step toward achieving greatness.

Still, there’s a long hurdle ahead before we’re finally riding that train.

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