Q&A: Hyperloop CEO talks technology, vibranium and Black Panther

Dirk Ahlborn is the cofounder and CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. [Courtesy of HTT]
Dirk Ahlborn is the cofounder and CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. [Courtesy of HTT]
Published April 4 2018
Updated April 4 2018

TAMPA — One of the top executives in the far-off world of Hyperloop technology, Dirk Ahlborn, spoke at the Synapse Innovation Summitt last month at Amalie Arena.

The CEO and co-founder of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies talked to the crowd about how his company is trying to turn the idea of traveling in tubes at the speed of sound into reality.

RELATED: Hyperloop in Florida? Look into transportation’s far-flung future

HTT CEO also sat down with the Tampa Bay Times and talked about the high cost of public transit, the discomfort of traveling when you’re 6-foot-5, and the inspiration Ahlborn drew from the blockbuster superhero movie Black Panther.

 

Obviously at summits like this and in the transportation world, Hyperloop is a big name getting a lot of buzz. But how would you explain it to somebody who has never heard of it?

It’s a capsule filled with people or freight hovering inside a tube, moving really, really fast. You’re just below the speed of sound. Inside the tube we create a low pressure environment. We have vacuum pumps along the track that take most of the air out. It’s a capsule which hovers, so it doesn’t touch the ground and it doesn’t encounter any resistance from the air.

High speed trains, for example, can reach 600 kph, but at these speeds the air resistance actually becomes almost like water. The vibrations, the resistance are just too high.

 

How does Hyperloop differ (from high-speed rail)?

So we solved that. Hyperloop produces its own energy by using solar, wind, kinetic energy or, depending on the climate, even geothermal energy. So the operational costs are very, very low. That’s a real issue we’re addressing. Speed is just a result based on the technology that’s being used. But the blue ocean, the big goal, is to solve the problem that we’re having with the cost of subsidies when it comes to public transportation.

 

TAMPA BAY TIMES REPORT: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here’s why. (Feb. 16, 2017)

 

How much would a HyperLoop system cost?

There’s no rail line, no metro line, in the whole world that’s profitable. They’re all relying heavily on government subsidies. Hyperloop, because again, the operational cost is very low, can be profitable in a very short time span.

The feasibility studies that we’ve done so far show a return on investment from 8 to 11 years, which is something that’s never been seen so far.

 

You’ve talked a lot about how Hyperloop will change not only the speed of travel, but also the style of travel. What else is different about this type of transportation?

Nobody really enjoys traveling anymore. You’re treated like cattle. You’re put into these classes. I mean, I’m 6’4". I can’t even fly economy anymore. I don’t fit. If I get a middle seat, not only do I feel bad for the people next to me, but literally, I don’t know how to fit. So there is a better way to do this.

 

How are you hoping to change that experience?

We want to go away from classes. In my vision, you don’t pay for transportation anymore in the future. There’s not going to be a ticket anymore. That’s because in 2018, there are better ways for how you can monetize.

If I have you for 30 minutes, I can produce much more value out of your 30-minute attention than maybe a $10 ticket price or $20 ticket price ...

"What do you want to do with that time? Do you want to have a massage, as an example? Do you want to do your doctor’s visit as you’re going to Miami? These things now completely change how we see transportation.

 

When can people expect to see something like Hyperloop up and running?

We started construction of the world’s first passenger hyperloop capsule last year. It’s going to be hopefully ready around July, August.

 

Talk about building the first hyperloop passenger capsule?

It’s in Spain. Carbures is a manufacturer for Boeing and Airbus, so they are normally manufacturing airplane fuselages, and that’s the same thing. The capsule is manufactured in a special composite we’ve developed which is called vibranium. If you have seen Captain America or Black Panther (movies), it’s all about vibranium. It was really inspired by that. My kids are big superhero fans, so when we were looking for a name, it was an homage to vibranium, which is the strongest material on earth (in the world of Marvel comic books and movies) and therefore also the safest one.

We expect over the next six months to announce the first commercial track. But basically later this year you will already seeing the first real full scale tubes and capsules. And then the first commercial line, hopefully, we announce over the next six months. And then it’s going to take roughly three years.

 

What is the hardest part about bringing this new technology online in the coming years?

The real hurdles here are not the technologies. The technologies already exist. We know how to build tubes. We know how to build pylons. We know how to levitate a train, to move a train. The pressure vessels are existing: those are airplane fuselages. The vacuum inside a tube has been done: that’s a particle accelerator in Switzerland. And that is much more difficult than what we do, because we are not in a complete vacuum, which a lot of people don’t understand. There’s still some air inside, but it’s just like moving an airplane to a really high altitude.

 

If technology isn’t the hurdle, then what is?

The real hurdle is regulation. It’s something that’s never been built. It’s not a train. It’s not an airplane. So you need a completely new set of laws. And that’s something that we’re working on right now. We’re working with safety institutes... to create these safety requirements. Munich Re, which is the largest reinsurance company in the world, has been working with us. And they have just released a risk report saying they believe they can insure our system. These are very, very important steps for commercialization of the technology.

 

A lot of the talk that we hear about Hyperloop is that its an underground transportation system.

 

That’s more Elon (Musk, the inventor who first pushed the technology.) Elon Musk started The Boring Company to, let’s call it increase the capacity of boring tunnels. It’s a little bit confusing and he definitely doesn’t help there. But those tunnels can be used in the future for Hyperloop. But underground is great in certain areas. In very dense areas it makes a lot of sense. But the real advantage is actually above ground. Because you’re using alternative energy, the sun for example. Especially here in Florida you want to get the alternative energy.

 

I assume building something underground in Florida wouldn’t really be an option since we’re at sea level?

 

There’s above ground. On ground. In trenches. Or tunneling. All of these things are things you have to take a look at. And based on the territory, based on the route, it might vary.

So if you have an altitude that changes and you still want to go fairly straight, you might tunnel. Tunneling in this car is much cheaper because of the diameter. The diameter is fairly small. It’s not a big train. These are huge boring machines. In our case, we’re talking about a 4 meter diameter.

 

I’ve heard talk about a Orlando-to-Miami line. What other Hyperloop lines could we see in Florida?

 

Right now, very honestly, the U.S. is fairly complicated ... To be honest with you, democracy sometimes in these kind of things is a problem … If the sheikh in the Emirates wants it, it’s going to be built. It’s a little bit faster in other areas.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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