Face to face: Nick Earle, Hyperloop One
Nick Earle of Hyperloop One divulges some little-known facts about Hyperloop, a technology that looks set to revolutionise the world of transportation
For Nick Earle, transportation is the next big thing in the technology sector. Now in his late 50s, Earle has worked for some of the biggest names in IT during his 35-year career, including Hewlett Packard (HP) and Cisco. And just as he was about to embrace the relaxing prospect of early retirement, an opportunity at Hyperloop One came along.
“I couldn’t resist it,” he explains. “I had to take it up, since I always wanted to be a part of the next big thing in the evolution of information technology,” Hyperloop One’s senior vice president for global field operations continues: “Currently, there are four modes of transportation. I can say that Hyperloop is the first new mode since the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk in 1903.”
In conversation with Construction Week during one of his regular visits to Dubai, Earle delves into the history of Hyperloop. “It all started when Elon Musk of SpaceX fame presented the Hyperloop Alpha white paper, and gathered widespread attention and enthusiasm about the technology in 2013,” he explains, adding that, in the following months, Hyperloop One was incorporated in Los Angeles, California, in order to commercialise the concept of the new mode of transportation.
“The concept of Hyperloop was introduced and named by Elon Musk in August 2013, although he is not involved with Hyperloop One,” Earle clarifies.
So what is Hyperloop? Earle elaborates: “The Hyperloop uses a linear electric motor to accelerate and decelerate an electromagnetically levitated pod through a low-pressure tube. The vehicle will glide silently for miles, at speeds of up to 1,080km/h, with no turbulence. We have autonomous pods without a driver, which resemble a packet of information going down [fibre-optic] cables directly to its destination.
“We use a passive ‘maglev’ technology, which means that it is the forward motion of the pod that causes it to levitate, rather than electricity. Once it does so, it then moves at 1,080km/h in a controlled environment and without touching the sides [of the tube]. When the pods reach their destination, they will slow down using regenerative braking like a Tesla. This means that the majority of the electricity is only used for the initial acceleration of the pod. It’s faster, greener, and cheaper than a high-speed rail.”
In November 2016, Hyperloop One signed an agreement with Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) to jointly explore routes for a transport system between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which will reduce journey times for people and goods between the two emirates to just 12 minutes. Once operational, Dubai will be home to the world’s first Hyperloop One transport link.
“This is a big opportunity for the GCC,” notes Earle. “The first-ever Hyperloop will create an ecosystem worth $50bn, comprising high-tech companies wanting to set up in the region. This can be the GCC’s Silicon Valley effect, where several successful technology start-ups emerged to give rise to thousands of jobs.”
Earle says that the components of the Hyperloop will be manufactured locally, which in turn will give rise to thousands of jobs in the country. “If we build a Hyperloop here, we are not going to manufacture components in Las Vegas. We will need factories here, which will create numerous jobs and, in turn, reduce the oil dependency. In addition to that, there will be courses in the universities to educate people about autonomous travel.
“We are inventing every single component of the Hyperloop, and we will license every technology to the local companies that built it. We want the companies to be physically present in the area where the Hyperloop will be located.”
The company is currently conducting its feasibility study for the Dubai-to-Abu Dhabi route, which is expected to finish by the end of January this year. According to Earle, if all goes well, that will move the company to the Phase 2, which will be the detailed design study, lasting nine months. A thick document will be produced during this period, stating the exact route, design of the stations, and other various engineering specifications. Phase 3 would involve obtaining a safety check certificate and other associated regulatory approvals.
Earle continues: “One doesn’t exist now, but the RTA could be the first authority to provide regulatory rules for the Hyperloop. So obtaining an appropriate approval will take around 12 to 15 months. All being well, and [without too much red-tape], we can have the first Hyperloop on ground, transporting passengers and freight, by 2021. And we estimate that at any given point, the maximum number of passengers to be transported would be about 12,000.”
Bringing the idea to life will be a costly endeavour, however. To date, Hyperloop One has been able to raise financing of $160m, with the recent signing of an agreement with Dubai’s DP World worth around $50m. The firm has previously received funding from the likes of 137 Ventures, Khosla Ventures, the French National Rail Company, and GE Venture.
DP World Group’s chief executive, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, is already on Hyperloop One’s board, and the group signed an agreement with Hyperloop One in August 2016 to explore a system to move containers from ships docked at DP World’s Jebel Ali Port to a new inland container depot in Dubai.
“Our single largest shareholder is DP World,” says Earle. “Right now, we are conducting a feasibility study in Jebel Ali Port for the system. Bin Sulayem is a visionary, and always looks at achieving more throughput.”
Earle divulges that the company is looking to raise another $200 to $300m from project finance, government funding, and private equity investors. He is confident of being able to convince people of the benefits that the Hyperloop will present.
“What if I say that investing that in a new technology will create 10,000 high-tech jobs, and you will become the world leader in the next generation of technology?” he asks. “Once people are made aware of the technology and its benefits, then I believe raising money will not be an issue.”
To fulfil the commitment, Earle says Hyperloop One will be taking people from the Middle East to witness the first full-scale Hyperloop test, to be conducted in the next three months in Las Vegas. The company is also working on projects in other countries, which include connecting Stockholm, Sweden, to Helsinki, Finland, cutting that journey from four and a half hours to just 28 minutes.
According to the Dubai Autonomous Transportation Strategy, launched by HH Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, by 2030, 25% of all transportation trips in the emirate will be smart and driverless. Earle concludes: “With autonomous vehicles being quite high on the government agenda, the regional governments are not only interested in connecting freight and people, but also creating a new economy, which is not based on oil revenue.”
Several start-ups are racing towards getting the first Hyperloop on track, but Earle points out that Hyperloop One is by far the biggest and the only company to have raised any money towards this concept.
He explains: “There is more than one company with Hyperloop in its name, which can be confusing for people. But we are the only one actually doing the engineering to bring the technology to reality.”
Earle says that its main competitor, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), is a crowdsourcing start-up, with around 200 or 300 people – many of them students and academics – dedicating a few hours a week in return for future share options.
He continues: “HTT is not building a Hyperloop; [it is] a crowd-sourced research community and [it has] raised $30m cash. It also said it would build a Hyperloop in Quay Valley, California by the end of 2016, but so far it’s just a field with no permits granted. Designing and building a Hyperloop is an expensive business, and we have raised $160m to develop the technology to bring the dream of autonomous mobility to reality.”
HTT has stated that its technology could cut the journey time from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain to as little as eight minutes.