When Elon Musk threw down the gauntlet with his 2013 white paper, “Hyperloop Alpha,” he laid out basic design principles for the Hyperloop concept: a transportation mode employing individual air-bearing-levitated pods propelled by linear induction motors to high speeds (up to 760 mph) through evacuated tubes. He declared it an open-source concept and encouraged anyone interested to help bring it to reality.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HyperloopTT) is one of a number of companies that arose to with an eye toward commercializing the concept. HyperloopTT was founded in 2013 by Dirk Ahlborn. The company has raised $50 million over four funding rounds to support its ongoing development work, and has built a full-scale test facility in Toulouse, France.
Of its competitors, Virgin Hyperloop One has raised the most, with funding totaling over $350 million. Also in the game are TransPod, DGWHyperloop, and AECOM, along with other companies and university-affiliated groups.
New take on an old idea
The ideas behind the Hyperloop concept aren’t new. Ahlborn, who now serves at HyperloopTT’s Chairman, explained: “This is not something Elon invented. The concept has been around about 200 years, and got its start in science fiction. In 1817, there was a first attempt at it in New York, with an idea to connect to San Francisco with underground tunnels and capsules moved with differential pressure. The idea of moving them through a vacuum first showed up in 1908.” The linear induction motor was first patented in 1905. British engineer Eric Laithwaite built the first full-size version in the 1940s, and its first uses for transportation began in the 1960s.
Of course, obviously none of those early efforts ever led to complete Hyperloop-style solution. But today we’ve had revolutions in technologies and materials that allow us to do things that could never be done before–both physically and organizationally.
Combining high tech with legacy tech
Building a workable Hyperloop means using time-tested solutions for some parts of the system, while leveraging new technologies to tackle some of the more difficult engineering challenges.
For the legacy side of the technology, creating the vacuum in the transport tubes is a good example. HyperloopTT turned to Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum (Leybold), a German manufacturer of vacuum pumps and systems with roots going back 170 years. (It’s now part of Sweden’s Atlas Copco Group, which itself is owned by Japan’s Nikkiso Co., Ltd.) “We’re the oldest industrial vacuum company in the world,” said Tom Kammermeier, Leybold’s Global Application Development Manager.
HyperloopTT was a whole new challenge for Leybold. Just picture the miles and miles of 13-foot diameter transport tubes that have to be evacuated to very low pressure. “We got a request for pump-down calculations for a huge pipe,” Kammermeier said. “We took a look at it and said, ‘We don’t have customers who do that.’ They covered us with a lot more simulation and calculation requests. After about half a year, I realized this is the real thing. From a crazy idea in the beginning, we now have something of real value.”
On the high-tech side, meanwhile, the surface of the capsule provides a good example of how fairly recent advances make the concept possible. The fuselage skin is made of a material invented by the HyperloopTT team, which they named Vibranium. It’s composed of carbon fiber with sensors embedded in it, making the shell of the vessel a smart feature that constantly transmits wireless signals about the skin’s temperature, stability, integrity, and so on.
Energy conservation is another high-tech feature of the design. The HyperloopTT concept is expected to be energy-positive over the course of a year by featuring solar panels on top of the transport tubes, and by using other sources of renewable energy.
New work team collaboration tools and methods
It’s HyperloopTT’s approach to tackling the concept’s myriad technical, legal, and regulatory challenges that sets it apart from its competitors. The company was already bringing a widely decentralized team together using online tools and breakthrough collaboration solutions long before the coronavirus forced those concepts on everybody else.
The new approach goes all the way back to HyperloopTT’s founding. Ahlborn, a serial entrepreneur, realized right away this challenge would take a different kind of organization. “In the past, I always had just one company at a time, each with a standard setup,” he said. “I realized for this we would need more. And now it’s a movement.” Ahlborn was referring to HyperloopTT’s unique organizational model, which combines facets of the gig economy with distance collaboration and crowdsourcing. “It’s easy to change to world if you’re rich and famous,” said Ahlborn. “If you’re a nobody? Then it’s not so easy. But this model allows that. In a normal model, people are hired, then they may spend a lot of their time just sitting around. With this model, we get top talent affordably – they bring their input and expertise, and are incredibly productive. We now have 800 people across 50 countries helping out.”
HyperloopTT is helping pioneer participative change by pulling such experts from all over the world, primarily based on their passion to play a part, who work on the project on their own time. “At first we paid nothing but stock options,” Ahlborn said. “Later, we moved to a hybrid plan – we’d raised money for some staffing. But if tomorrow the dollars ran out, everybody would still be here.”
Ann Majchrzak is the Chaired Professor of Business Administration and Digital Innovation at the Marshall School of Business at USC. She’s also co-author of Unleashing the Crowd: Collaborative Solutions to Wicked Business Solutions and Societal Problems. She first wrote about and contributed to HyperloopTT’s unique model in a case study published by Harvard Business School in 2017. “It’s a societal breakthrough on how to get things done,” she explained. “You couldn’t have done this 10 or 15 years ago–we lacked the technology and the understanding of remote work.”
Majchrzak not only believes the HyperloopTT model is the best way to achieve the Hyperloop dream, but that it’s the only way. “There is no other way to do this,” she said. “You have to have all the players have ‘skin in the game.’ With the competitors, all they’re doing is building technology. HyperloopTT realizes the need to solve for the complete infrastructure.” She sees it as a model for tackling other enormous societal problems as well, from climate change to ocean health.
A key element of the model, as Majchrzak pointed out, is technology. Specifically, HyperloopTT uses Workplace by Facebook as its main collaboration platform. With 130 million users globally across 150 countries, it’s already a well-established medium. “When companies deploy Workplace, they deploy it across the whole company immediately,” said Christine Trodella, Head of Americas for Workplace at Facebook. “It can be 500 employees, or with a company like Nestle, over 30,000 employees. When companies are able to use the platform to connect people who are very dispersed across the world, there’s a lot of power in that.”
For a weighty technical challenge like Hyperloop, Workplace offers features well beyond generic videoconferencing. “It has the same features as Facebook – chat, messaging, and groups, for example,” Trodella said. “It’s really effective for broadcast communication, for executive live Q&A. The Groups function [with open and closed groups that get information specific to them] is a great tool for collaboration. HyperloopTT has used that extensively.”
Distributing content effectively is a key feature for HyperloopTT as well. “Video is very popular,” said Trodella. “The platform will translate videos automatically.” Advanced tools are another advantage. “Sentiment analysis of posts tells you how people are taking the message,” explained Trodella. “And VR and AR are our platforms of the future, including our Oculus feature that can be used for some pretty amazing training.” (Facebook owns Oculus, the maker of AR headsets.)
“HyperloopTT is a great example of how Workplace has been used in all ways,” Trodella said. “Teams made up of people of different languages are able to connect and communicate, and to do it cost-effectively. It helps them drive engagement across time zones.”
The coming transportation revolution
“We started with a movement that became a company,” said Ahlborn. “Hyperloop is a technology that’s coming. At this point, it’s not really a technology risk. The biggest issue now is regulation. But we’re working with lots of different government to solve that.”
The company is aiming for a small commercial system to be operational in four to five years. But execution isn’t their long-term focus. “We’re a technology company–we don’t plan on building or operating the systems,” Ahlborn explained. “We’ll license that out to train or airline companies. That way it’s easy to have several going at once.”
For him, the end product is only part of the accomplishment. “It’s not just about what we’re doing,” he said, “but how we’re doing it.”