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Inside Virgin Hyperloop One’s prototype pod in Dubai

Having unveiled the first prototype of a Dubai pod, Virgin Hyperloop One brings the UAE a step closer to seeing a high-speed transport system, once deemed little more than a product of science fiction, become operational

Site Visits, SPECIAL REPORTS, Sectors, Dubai, High-speed transport system, Prototype, Rta, Uae, Virgin Hyperloop One

Listening to Harj Dhaliwal talk about hyperloop technology, one can understand why some people remain sceptical about the high-speed transit system first proposed by SpaceX founder and Tesla co-founder, Elon Musk. Levitating pods travelling in a depressurised tube at 1,200km/h? The concept sounds like something taken right out of an Isaac Asimov novel – or the 1960s cartoon show The Jetsons.

“Our vision is to eliminate the barriers of distance and time,” he says, easily bringing to mind the British cult show, Doctor Who, and its alien hero – now heroine – who travels through space and time in a blue spacecraft shaped like a police box.

Remarks about the seemingly far-fetched nature of hyperloop technology are nothing new, nor are references to futuristic works of fiction. Indeed, even Dhaliwal, who is managing director for the Middle East and India at Virgin Hyperloop One, offers one of his own: “Sounds like something from Star Wars, doesn’t it?”

His Star Wars reference notwithstanding, Dhaliwal emphasises that hyperloop is not improbable and that the principles behind the technology are no longer science fiction but science fact.

“The technology behind hyperloop is not new,” he tells Construction Week. “I think there’s [an assumption] that this has all been reinvented, but no. The basic principles of hyperloop have been around for a long time, and those principles are effective.”

Elaborating on what those principles are, he continues: “You have a tube, [and] you evacuate the air out of the tube. You bring the pressure down so it’s almost semi-space. You then have a pod, [which is] a vehicle that you put within the tube. You levitate that vehicle using electromagnetic levitation, and then you propel that vehicle using a linear induction motor or another form of propulsion system.

“That, in essence, is all it is. And that technology has been around for nearly 50, 60, 70 years. So what we are doing now is bringing it into the 21st century, and what we are doing for the first time is bringing all those different [principles] – creating the vacuum, the space conditions, the levitation, the propulsion, the controls, and the pod – and putting them into one system, which we are going to use for hyperloop transportation.”

In his 57-page white paper on hyperloop, published in 2013, Musk posited that the super-fast transport technology would be the answer to the need for “a new mode of transport – a fifth mode after planes, trains, cars, and boats” that is safer, faster, less costly, and more convenient compared to alternatives.

“Short of figuring out real teleportation, which would of course be awesome [...], the only option for super-fast travel is to build a tube over or under the ground that contains a special environment”, wrote Musk.

The paper may have been met with a degree of scepticism by some, with a number of headlines at the time brandishing phrases like ‘sci-fi fantasy’, but the global engineering and scientific community rallied behind the idea, and more than a few of its members responded to Musk’s call to turn the concept into reality, saying he was too busy with Tesla and SpaceX to do it himself.

Five short years later, several milestones have been reached in the quest to develop the world’s first hyperloop system, with Virgin Hyperloop One revealing that it has signed a framework agreement with India’s prime minister and the government of Maharashtra to build a hyperloop between Pune and Mumbai.

Moreover, the company has raised at least $295m in investment, built a full-scale test track in Nevada, and unveiled the first prototype of a passenger pod.

Giving Construction Week a tour of the pod, which made its global debut in Dubai, Dhaliwal explains: “What we are trying to do is really give the public an immersive experience, for the first time in the world, of what hyperloop vehicles could feel like, [of] what it be like to sit [...] and travel in them.”

The “Dubai pod”, as Dhaliwal describes it, was unveiled in February 2018 by Virgin Hyperloop One and the emirate’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) as part of UAE Innovation Month.

Boasting two cabin types – first- and gold-class – the pod consists of 16 seats designed by the automotive maker, BMW.

“You can see straight away that there’s a lot of room here,” Dhaliwal says, gesturing around the pod. “We’re trying to create a very open atmosphere. We don’t want to have [the kind of] crowding [problem] that [people] are used to.”

Emphasising the importance of the customer experience, he adds: “When you get onto a hyperloop system, [we don’t want] you to feel as if you’re in just any other mass transit system.”

Virgin Hyperloop One may not be developing any new technology in its work on the super-fast mode of transit, but the company still has an ambitious objective in mind.

“What we are trying to do is reinvent travel [and] the travel experience. From the time you leave your front door to the time you reach your destination, you will know that you are on a hyperloop transport system,” says Dhaliwal.

To do that, the company intends to equip passenger pods, specifically those designed for long-distance trips, with the same “top-of-the-line interiors” seen on the Dubai prototype, which features ‘infotainment’ systems and interactive screens instead of windows, as well as panels on the armrests, where wireless charging and controls to adjust the lighting and the seat, among others, can be accessed.

The interactive screens, according to Dhaliwal, will display the passenger’s name and destination: “In fact, you will have a video running, just like you’d see in an aircraft, telling you exactly where you are using a global positioning [system], so you can follow the journey, the speed, the distance, [and acceleration].

“You could also have, on long journeys, movies. You can have music, news, [and] live feeds, so no different to what you would [find] on a modern passenger jet.”

Dhaliwal’s emphasis on long journeys is intentional, because pod interiors would vary depending on the duration and purpose of the trip.

“In certain instances, when you’ve got very short journey times, you wouldn’t have to have as many [people] sitting,” he notes. “You could have a lot more [people] standing. You could have more passengers [and less space], but it would only be a two-minute journey.”

A number of the pods would also be used to transport cargo, reveals Dhaliwal: “A pod is a vehicle, and the interior design of a vehicle depends on the uses that the system is going to be designed for and [put] into service.

“For us, a pod could [...] carry people or [...] cargo, just like an airplane. Imagine that you are in an airport, and you look out your window. To your right, you’ll see a passenger aircraft and to your left, you’ll see a cargo aircraft.”

Both aircraft, says Dhaliwal, would look identical from the outside, but would feature different interiors: “What we have here in Dubai is really a pod very much at a prototype level, [and fitted] for passenger use. Our pods could [transport] anywhere from 12, to 50, to 80 people, depending on what the demand requirements are for any particular route.

“In addition, we’ll be looking at having no seats; we’ll be looking at a stripped-down version of [the prototype], and then having the [interior designed] purely for palletised, light cargo.”

The company, says Dhaliwal, is trying to be “as versatile as [it] can” and cater to as many uses as it can, “at any one time”.

However, despite the milestones that the company has achieved in the project and his personal enthusiasm and optimism for the success of the hyperloop system, Dhaliwal admits that there are challenges to introducing and implementing the technology.

“Introducing a new technology [comes with a lot] of challenges, from ensuring that the engineering comes together and that we, through every step of the process, maintain the confidence of our shareholders, our staff, clients, customers, [and] partners,” he explains, adding: “On top of all that, we will have to address the need to have a very transparent and open approach to safety certification before we put anybody on to our hyperloop system. That is a very prescriptive and detailed process that we need to go through.”

Talking about how the company intends to address the issue of safety certification, he says that Virgin Hyperloop One plans to collaborate with different industries: “We will [...] engage industry leaders not only from [the hyperloop sector] but also from space, aerospace, and high-speed rail – it’s a real cross-over [undertaking].

“Having those three industries cross over is absolutely fascinating. We need to learn from [them],” he notes. “What we will do with hyperloop is merge [the ideas behind those industries] using some of the best people in the world to enable and advise us, to give us direction and guidance, to give everybody confidence that by the time we run our first pod, with the first person in it, that [the system] is absolutely faultless.”

Making sure that everything is in the right order and that every component works properly before the system commences commercial operations, which he estimates would be five years from now, is of high priority due to the complexity of the project.

It is, however, a challenge that the company is said to be more than willing to take since the benefits that an operational hyperloop system could offer are greater than any obstacle in its development.

“The benefits are as big as your imagination,” says Dhaliwal. “Too often, people look at hyperloop and think that it’s just fast. That’s fine, [but] that’s only part of the equation that we are looking at when we look at the benefits of [...] what hyperloop provides.”

Another benefit is energy efficiency, with the company aiming to use renewable energy to not only power its system but also be a “net-positive contributor to the grid”.

“So it’s not just about speed, but also about the opportunity that this technology could create. It’s about how we plan, how we travel; it’s about [what] the passenger experience in the next century is going to be like, and those are important things to think about.”

In support of his statement, Dhaliwal cites London in 1840 as example, saying that with one million inhabitants, it was the largest city in the world at the time, but that since the primary mode of transport back then was the horse and cart, travel time was a significant issue.

“When people travelled in London in 1840, they didn’t say that it was going to take them 1.6km to get across the city. They would say that it would take them an hour,” he says. “Now that one hour has been proven, through studies, to be the standard time that people are willing to dedicate to commuting every day.”

With hyperloop in the picture, that one hour will no longer equate to “1.6km but 500km”, points out Dhaliwal. In present-day UAE, Virgin Hyperloop One claims that it would be able to cut down travel time from Dubai to Abu Dhabi to 12 minutes. The 150km trip currently takes around 90 minutes to complete. 

“Imagine what that can do to economies, opportunities, growth, and businesses,” continues Dhaliwal. “Where you used to have [metropolises] and regions, you would now have the ability to create these mega-regions.

“Now, take it one step further, and imagine how we would plan our cities. Would we want to continue building cities based on the theory that one size fits all? That everything – commercial, retail, jobs, industrial, warehousing, manufacturing, [and so on] – has to be in the same place?”

Offering an answer to the question he just posed, he adds: “No, because think about what’s happening today. The cities are dense; they are crowded because the opportunities are there. People migrate there to have access to those opportunities, because they think cities offer them a great quality of life, but do they really?” Making it clear that the answer would be another “no”, Dhaliwal extends a challenge, saying that societies would need to start taking a “radical” approach to urban planning as time and distance could soon cease to be barriers.

“This is what hyperloop has the potential of doing: reinventing the way we work, introducing balance into city planning, and spreading opportunities across bigger distances,” he concludes.

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