Shervin Pishevar & Elon Musk: Racing to Build the First Hyperloop

hyperloop-visual-shervin pishevar

More than five years ago, Californians gathered at the polls to finally tackle one of the state’s most vexing, complex, and decade-old problems: A crumbling, aging, woefully inadequate transportation infrastructure.

This Road in California Suddenly Rose Up And Crumbled And No One Knows Why

Faded asphalt and deep potholes were pervasive and annoying side effects — unseemly in a state that boasted an economy larger than the entire countries of France, India and Italy. But the real problem was the state’s ancient rail system, which was slow, inefficient, prone to delays, and totally mismanaged.

The savior, it seemed, was Proposition 1A: The transfer of state funds to build a shiny, new high-speed rail system. Prop 1A would answer a bold California question: How can we quickly and easily move people from city to city, en masse, minus the problems of our existing rail structure?

Venture capitalist legend Shervin Pishevar and entrepreneur Elon Musk, no strangers to California traffic, knew that it was beyond time to ask that question. But as voters gave their blessing to what would become a corrupt, punchline-worthy, hyper-expensive high-speed rail debacle, no doubt the two friends, who favored a revolutionary alternative, did not like the outcome.

In other words, the question was right. But the answer was not.

What optimistic Californians voted for was a modern, clean, fast and safe rail system. Something that might cost them more money, but not drain the state’s budget. What they got was what one Southern California newspaper recently dubbed “nothing more than a bloated, broken testament to failure”, a rail project that didn’t even have a snowball’s chance of being built within the next decade, with an ever-skyrocketing budget overflowing with kickbacks for politicians, unions, and any number of corrupt and shady organizations.

The solution, according to Shervin Pishevar and Elon Musk, was an elegant, aerodynamic train that traveled at
the speed of a commercial jet. A railway in a tube, propelled by magnets. A modern miracle that could make it from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less time than it took to make it through the security line at LAX.

The concept was bold. The answer was Hyperloop.

Pishevar and Musk bring Hyperloop to life

Musk smoking a cigar in Cuba with Sean Penn and Shervin Pishevar (2013)

The year was 2013, the place, Havana Cuba. Shervin Pishevar, who had already made waves by investing in some of the world’s most prolific tech companies, was on a humanitarian mission with Elon Musk and Sean Penn. The details are somewhat sparse, but there is at least one image circulating of the fedora-wearing trio, cigars hanging from their mouths, in one of Havana’s iconic 1950s cars.

Before this trip, Shervin Pishevar had heard Elon Musk talk about a train not entirely unlike a pneumatic tube, a train that could ultimately be faster, safer, and even cheaper than bullet trains throughout Japan and other parts of Asia.

This Caribbean journey was not just a trip to try and gain the release an American political prisoner, but Pishevar’s chance to get Musk on board with realizing the vision of the Hyperloop train. As they travelled throughout Havana, Pishevar and Musk talked about what would stand as the partial framework for today’s in-development Hyperloop: a Rand Corporation research paper from 1978.

The author’s vision was “not an ordinary subway system, but rather one moving at thousands of miles per hour…its cars travel in underground evacuated tubes and are electromagnetically supported and propelled. Cars float on these electromagnetic fields just as surfboards ride ocean waves.”

After arriving back home, Elon Musk authored a 58-page white paper on Hyperloop Alpha, his vision for the train. It filled in the blanks that readers, no doubt, would ask, including how much it would cost, how fast it could travel, what it could carry, how many people it could move at peak hours and how it would deal with the elephant in the room — keeping the tube pressurized without suffocating the passengers.

This white paper, thanks to Pishevar, made it to the desk of then-President Barack Obama. Obama enthusiastically gave his support and offered to help. And Pishevar was off to the races.

Shervin Pishevar’s radical vision: Hyperloop One

Shervin Pishevar Hyperloop One

Pishevar’s first task was getting others to believe that his version of the Hyperloop, a project he named Hyperloop One, was truly the future of transport, and that it was worth it to build something that only existed in technical documents, white papers and sketches. Obama campaign political advisor Jim Messina would join the team, as would a trio of tech entrepreneurs: David Sacks, Joe Lonsdale and Peter Diamandis.

Pishevar, an early investor in Uber, Airbnb and other prolific companies, had an impeccable reputation as a startup kingmaker and generous philanthropist. So when he contacted some of the tech, political and business world’s best people, phones and emails were answered – swiftly.

In many ways, Pishevar has always been practical. Hyperloop’s preliminary headquarters was not in a lavish office in a building with a prestige address, but rather a garage. Apple, Google, Harley Davidson and Mattel were all companies born in garages, and Hyperloop One would share that theme in a Los Feliz structure designed specifically to house another type of transport: a car.

In 2014, Shervin Pishevar launched an innovation campus, focusing on Hyperloop, in the arts district of LA’s downtown. Millions of dollars in funding began pouring in. But what would Hyperloop One ultimately look like..and how would it work?

In the words of Virgin, a company now working on the Hyperloop One project, here are the details:

Hyperloop is a new mode of transportation that moves freight and people quickly, safely, on-demand and direct from origin to destination. Passengers or cargo are loaded into the hyperloop vehicle and accelerate gradually via electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube. The vehicle floats above the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds for long distances due to ultra-low aerodynamic drag.

Hyperloop One could be housed above ground, using tunnels and columns, or below ground. For Pishevar, the test prototype would be above ground, in the desert of Las Vegas. In 2016, a Hyperloop One prototype was tested. It reached 100 mph in one second. It was a triumph.

When asked whether America would be the home of the first Hyperloop One, Pishevar stated that he expected that the world would see the first functioning train outside of the country. And given the Hyperloop One fever that has taken place over the last few years, especially in Asia and the Middle East, he’s most likely correct in that assumption.

Hyperloop One capture’s the world’s imagination

Dubai with a proposed Hyperloop. Image: Hyperloop One

The first major region to embrace the Hyperloop One with both funding and resources was arguably Dubai. The oil-rich emirate and capital city was already known for building gravity-defying skyscrapers and high-tech infrastructure and was in the midst of transforming the fuel for its economic engine from petroleum to knowledge and technology.

So it was no wonder that the Arab Emirate would go all-in with Hyperloop One technology as a way to shuttle the world’s dealmakers — and a legion of cargo — from one city to the next. DP World Group, the world’s third-largest port operator, invested $50 million in the technology in late 2016. The funding would back an extraordinary premise, that a Hyperloop One train could make the trip from Dubai to Abu Dhabi in 12 minutes. In a car, the same journey would typically take around two hours.

Earlier this year, Dubai was the place where the Hyperloop One Pod was finally unveiled, in all its sleek glory. Inside the windowless pod, visitors marveled at the BMW-designed seats, complemented by a world-class entertainment system nested in the armrests. Passengers must be strapped in during the entire 12-minute journey from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, so the seats had to be comfortable and the entertainment system, top-of-the-line.

But around the time of the big unveil, Hyperloop One was making a cascade of announcements, many based around an extraordinary contest for engineers and fans of the concept: The Hyperloop One Global Challenge.

The Hyperloop One Global Challenge was a 2016 contest that called for people around the planet to submit proposals for Hyperloop One networks.

More than 2,600 teams submitted proposals, and a team of experts identified the strongest 35 proposals. After further whittling down the proposals, 10 winners were announced from a variety of countries. The winning routes were:

Canada: Toronto to Montreal

United States: Cheyenne to Denver to Pueblo

United States: Miami to Orlando

United States: Dallas to Laredo to Houston

United States: Chicago to Columbus to Pittsburgh

Mexico: Mexico City to Guadalajara

United Kingdom: Edinburgh to London

United Kingdom: Glasgow – Liverpool

India: Bengaluru to Chennai

India: Mumbai to Chennai

Brimming with excitement about the Hyperloop after being named one of the finalists — but not one of the winners — the state of Missouri launched a feasibility study on building a Hyperloop One route along the I-70 highway. The goal was to analyze the potential economic impact and benefits of a Hyperloop One route that could connect St. Louis, Columbia and Kansas City. The journey could take less than a half hour.

India also announced its intent to build a Hyperloop One route between Mumbai and Pune. The proposed route would start with an operational demonstration track — the first steps to building the real thing, which would ultimately go from central Pune, Navi Mumbai International Airport, and Mumbai in a mind-blowing 25 minutes.

If built and made operational, the Indian government estimated that it would support trips for 150 million passengers per year, which adds up to a savings of 90 million travel hours. It would also move light freight and palletized cargo between the major stops, powering the next generation of logistics.

Ohio, a Hyperloop One Global Challenge Finalist, also made a strong commitment to exploring the Hyperloop for its own state. Ohio did things a bit differently, announcing plans to launch an environmental impact study on how a Hyperloop One route, as well as a traditional train, would affect people, businesses and nature. The proposed route? Chicago to Columbus to Pittsburgh.

The massive study, the first of its kind anywhere, would be divided into two phases. The first phase, the feasibility study, would take an estimated nine months, and explore two different routes. Route cities, at a minimum, would include Fort Wayne, Marysville, Lima, Chicago, Columbus and Pittsburgh.The second phase would include the environment impact report, and would take a year.

In 2015, Elon Musk announced the first Hyperloop Pod Competition, inviting university teams from all over the world to try and build the very best Hyperloop pod. Three competitions would subsequently take place over the next several years, with a Munich-based team, called WARR Hyperloop, winning three times in a row. In the most recent competition, WARR’s Hyperloop reached almost 300 miles per hour.

In 2016, Elon Musk began his own Hyperloop quest. And it all started with The Boring Company.

Elon Musk Maps out his Own Hyperloop

Elon Musk Hyperloop Shervin Pishevar

For years, it appeared that Elon Musk would not build his own Hyperloop. It made sense, as he told Shervin Pishevar that he planned to open-source the tech when the entrepreneur asked Musk if he’d be fine with him starting his own Hyperloop company.

In 2016, however, Musk launched a company to challenge the notion that Los Angeles was destined to stay a gridlocked hell for drivers.

That company was The Boring Company, and it did — and still does — something extraordinarily well: dig tunnels.

From the start, The Boring Company’s vision was to remake the Los Angeles transportation system by using machines to dig tunnels. For a Hyperloop train, the tunnel system was an easy sell, as it would cause less disruption to wildlife and almost no stress for the people above ground.

Musk soon announced that he had verbal agreements to build underground transportation tunnels in New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and other cities. And the core tech would be a Hyperloop.

Unlike Shervin Pishevar, who was focusing like a laser on Hyperloop One trains, Musk’s transport plans were distinctly different in two ways.

The passenger/cargo vehicles, called “skates” would mostly be used for high-speed transit that would travel at 125-150 mph. Called Loops, these fast, but not Hyperloop-speed trips would be used for shorter distances.

The Hyperloop tech would be used for longer distances, with pods traveling at an estimated 600+ mph. Unlike the Loops, the Hyperloop would need a pressurized tunnel to reduce friction, so the pods could travel as fast as possible.

But Musk also announced a goal for the project, beyond speed. Originally, the vision for Musk’s underground transport network was to shuttle both cars and pedestrians to different areas. However, Musk has since shifted gears, and will focus almost exclusively on how the Hyperloop will serve people first, instead of cars.

“Adjusting The Boring Company plan: all tunnels & Hyperloop will prioritize pedestrians & cyclists over cars” he said in a March 2018 tweet, and continued: “Will still transport cars, but only after all personalized mass transit needs are met. It’s a matter of courtesy & fairness. If someone can’t afford a car, they should go first.”

New competition hits the Hyperloop circuit

hyperloop one technologies and companies

Shervin Pishevar and Elon Musk are two of the most well-known figures in the Hyperloop world. But other people are also competing in the space now, designing and executing their own Hyperloop plans.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, based in Los Angeles, announced in July that it would bring a Hyperloop train to a relatively poor province in China: Guizhou. This was on the tail-end of two other partnerships, with Abu Dhabi and Ukraine.

With the China partnership, the company would build out a six-mile route for the city of Tongren, for an estimated $300 million. The cost of building the train itself has not been shared with the public, but the company is expecting the task to be more challenging than building a route in Ukraine or Abu Dhabi, because this particular region in China is more mountainous.

Another Hyperloop startup, named Arrivo, has abandoned the Hyperloop tech for a more traditional maglev (magnetic levitation) model, to be built in the Denver area. The maglev train from Arrivo may reach 200 miles per hour, but it will contain none of the Hyperloop components, including the pressurized tube, that make it, well, a Hyperloop.

The Hyperloop market is growing more crowded by the week, with a flurry of Hyperloop plans and projects being announced at a rapid-fire pace. But even if Shervin Pishevar’s Hyperloop isn’t the first one to be used as mass transport, many will know that it was his vision and Elon Musk’s creativity that made this revolutionary, transportation-shifting technology a reality.

“Hyperloop One has accomplished what no one has done before by successfully testing the first full-scale Hyperloop system. By achieving full vacuum, we essentially invented our own sky in a tube, as if you’re flying at 200,000 feet in the air.” Pishevar said. “When you hear the sound of the Hyperloop One, you hear the sound of the future.”

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