Was The Hyperloop A Scam? Will “Futuristic” Transportation Technology Ever Meet Us In The Present?


You probably hate traffic as much as the next person, but your woes aren’t ending anytime soon, or ever, if you’re waiting for the hyperloop to finally begin working for you.

The American company that kept the flag of promise alive for an extraordinary reduction in travel times through a new and revolutionary system of mass transportation is shutting down — and, with it, probably the hope of that technology ever coming to fruition.

According to Bloomberg’s reporting, Hyperloop One is all but gone by the end of this year. The futuristic transportation company has let go of the majority of its employees and is selling off its remaining assets.

The employees who remain, mainly responsible for managing the asset sale, have been reportedly informed that their employment will cease on 31 December.

So, that’s that for Hyperloop One — a literal ‘pipe’ dream of zipping passengers and cargo at close to 1,000 kilometres per hour in battery-powered pods inside nearly airless tubes.

It wasn’t that long ago that entrepreneur Richard Branson was backing this endeavour. Branson got on board the Hyperloop One train in 2017. Finding the technology “ridiculously exciting,” he even became chairman of the temporarily rebranded Virgin Hyperloop.

“I am convinced this ground-breaking technology will change transportation as we know it and dramatically cut journey times,” he said.

At the time, Hyperloop One co-founder Josh Giegel took Branson’s backing as a “sign we’re doing something right.”

Not just in the United States (US), the company was making its presence felt overseas as well, including.

In 2019, the then-chief minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, shook hands formally with Hyperloop One for a project to connect Amritsar, Ludhiana, and Chandigarh and reduce the travel time from 5 hours to under 30 minutes, with room to extend the line to the National Capital Region (NCR). (The project stalled during the pandemic.)

Marching on, the company managed to build the world’s first hyperloop test system in the Nevada desert in 2018 and transport people in a 2020 trial run, although at only a fraction of the promised speed.

They, however, changed tack and made the call in 2022 to transport cargo instead of passengers — even though, as Carlo van de Weijer, director of smart mobility at a university in the Netherlands, told the New York Times, “I don’t know of any case where cargo is in such a hurry.”

Meanwhile, job cuts were eating away at the company. By the end of the year, Branson pulled out of the venture, too. Perhaps, he knew what was coming — an impending failure to turn the grandiose idea of hyperloop into reality, and not just for Hyperloop One, but for anyone else who may be trying to make the technology glide to success.

Hyperloop Origins

The idea of the hyperloop came from Elon Musk.

In a 2013 white paper titled “Hyperloop Alpha,” the Tesla chief explored “truly a new mode of transport – a fifth mode after planes, trains, cars and boats” for super-fast and inexpensive travel.

He defined the hyperloop as consisting “of a low pressure tube with capsules that are transported at both low and high speeds throughout the length of the tube.”

“The capsules,” he wrote, “are supported on a cushion of air, featuring pressurised air and aerodynamic lift. The capsules are accelerated via a magnetic linear accelerator affixed at various stations on the low pressure tube with rotors contained in each capsule.”

For a concept, Musk considered a system connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco — both cities in California, US. The promise was that a distance of over 550 kilometres would be covered in only 35 minutes.

This system was a good fit with his imagined use case. For him, this hyperloop “or something similar” was “the right solution for the specific case of high traffic city pairs that are less than about 1500 km… apart.”

He pegged the total cost of the hyperloop at under $6 billion for two one-way tubes and 40 capsules — an estimate acknowledged to be falling short greatly of the actual mark if the technology ever came to be.

At that cost, Musk saw the hyperloop as a beneficial alternative to the other modes of transport, specifically, the railway track-based, high-speed rail system.

Ashlee Vance revealed in her biography Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future that Musk told her “the idea originated out of his hatred for California’s proposed high-speed rail system.”

Pitching it as “an open design concept, similar to Linux” in his 2013 paper, Musk sought feedback from the community to “help advance the Hyperloop design and bring it from concept to reality.”

The open-source transportation concept was then picked up for development by some, including Musk’s own The Boring Company, a tunnel construction and equipment company.

Along with SpaceX, The Boring Company sponsored the Hyperloop Pod Competition annually from 2015 to 2019 seeking a demonstration by student teams and hobbyists of the technical feasibility of the hyperloop concept.

Significantly, SpaceX had designed and built a prototype test track, or “Hypertube,” as part of a learning curve to develop future hyperloop tracks. This track was used in the competition in 2018 and 2019, as well. But by the end of 2022, the prototype tunnel was no more and turned into a parking space for employees.

Little has come out of attempts at realistic demonstrations of the hyperloop over the years. Hyperloop One was considered to be the one making the most strides after they built an actual (not prototype) test track and even conducted a trial run involving two passengers (the company’s employees). But even their effort has now come undone.

Just A Cool Tech?

For Awais Ahmed, founder and chief executive officer of Pixxel, the news of Hyperloop One shutting down didn’t come as a surprise.

“For those that had worked on the hyperloop at one point or the other, I don’t think it was surprising news (of Hyperloop One shutting down). Except probably to those that unreasonably continued to believe that they could usher in a new mode of transportation,” he wrote in a 27 December blog post.

Amhed’s Pixxel is an Indian space data company, building a constellation of hyperspectral earth-imaging satellites and the analytical tools to mine insights from that data. Their satellites have reached orbit riding atop SpaceX and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) rockets.

Before starting Pixxel in the final year of college at BITS Pilani, Ahmed was part of an all-India “group of ragtag students” competing in the Hyperloop Pod Competition 2017. He was only in his second year of college at the time, he said.

The Indian team “with absolutely no experience of building anything close to resembling a hyperloop pod or near it” was among the 20 finalists picked from approximately 2,500 participants from around the world.

They were able to “ship a manufactured pod to Los Angeles just in time for the competition weekend” and, thereafter, meet with Musk and the team at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

In another effort, they did much better as “Hyperloop India” in the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, involving — that’s right — the hyperloop company that is now shutting down.

The team had proposed to design a hyperloop corridor in India, connecting Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Chennai, as well as other trade hubs along the way.

Ahmed wrote in his blog post that their idea was to begin with a cargo-only hyperloop, cutting down “the oceanic transit time from Mumbai to Chennai to just a few hours through an inland hyperloop route,” and then move to passenger transport after the safety standards were met, public confidence was higher, and regulatory approvals were received.

Writing about the bleak future now starting at the hyperloop technology, the Pixxel chief wrote: “The hyperloop promised a future with a leap in speed and efficiency that current technology and infrastructure just aren’t prepared to support. Willingness to invest heavily in an unproven system is a hard sell when cheaper, proven alternatives exist.”

Perhaps, it’s a technology to wonder about, but not make. “…sometimes cool technology is just that – cool technology that might not come to fruition or be useful in the real world,” he wrote, recalling lessons learnt, but also that “people should work on cool tech regardless of if it seems economically possible or not.”

The challenges with implementing a hyperloop system — even beyond the technology side of things, which is the most important part — seem insurmountable.

An entire infrastructure — tubes, tunnels, pillars, stations, land, all while preserving the ecology, and with the cost of it all — needs to be created only to make hyperloop transportation a reality, let alone make it work effectively.

Still, some are admirably trying to make it all work. The Bloomberg report named Hardt Hyperloop, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, and Swisspod Technologies as some examples.

Will the “futuristic” transportation technology ever meet us in the present?

“The thing about Hyperloop is that it does not exist until it actually exists,” Giegel told journalist Ryan Bradley in 2016 (story in MIT Technology Review). Seven years later, it’s the same story — and might end up being an enduring one.