AUSTIN, Texas — Transportation planners in Texas are taking a leap into the future as a new form of mass transit with a buzzy name and just enough of a futuristic vision takes root in the Lone Star State.
"It's not a train. It's not an airplane. It's somewhere in between," says Dirk Ahlborn, CEO and co-founder of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, one of a handful of startups seeking to make super-fast travel via the science fictionesque Hyperloop model a commercial reality.
Hyperloop technology would use magnetic levitation to power floating pods carrying people or goods in low-pressure sealed tubes and trim travel time over hundreds of miles from hours to mere minutes. It's on a fast path to reality in a rapidly growing state where there's a lot of ground to cover. Think Dallas to Fort Worth – more than 30 miles – in slightly more than six minutes, or a quick trip midway to Arlington – in three minutes.
"There's great excitement with regard to the possibility of Hyperloop within the Dallas/Fort Worth region," says Michael Morris, director of transportation for the area's planning body for mobility improvement and reduction of vehicle emissions. "We wish to be a center of a technology change in transportation."
This ultra-high-speed form of innovative travel is by no means ready for a close-up – or passengers. Federal regulations require environmental and feasibility studies, mechanical issues or safety concerns can create delays, construction can take years, and getting through the red tape involved in acquiring land for the route are all obstacles that Hyperloop must overcome.
Along with other forms of new transportation – autonomous and self-driving technology, aerial transit reminiscent of "The Jetsons" and micro-mobility such as dockless bikes and scooters – Hyperloop faces plenty of tests and trials ahead, says global transportation expert William Riggs, an assistant professor of management at the University of San Francisco.
"This is a hugely disruptive period of mobility," he says. "We're seeing basically a revolution."
Hyperloop technology would propel passengers or cargo at airline speeds using magnetic levitation to power floating pods in low-pressure sealed tubes. This could trim travel time over hundreds of miles from hours to just minutes. (HYPERLOOP TRANSPORTATION TECHNOLOGIES)
Texas isn't the only spot in the U.S. where Hyperloop is being explored. Hyperloop projects are in various stages: In Colorado and Missouri, feasibility studies are to be completed this fall. Colorado's 360-mile project would connect Denver with Vail, Pueblo and Cheyenne. Missouri is focused on the corridor between Kansas City and St. Louis. In Ohio, a feasibility study and environmental impact statement connecting Columbus, Chicago and Pittsburgh (similar to the studies slated to begin in Texas) will wrap up by mid-2019, while another proposed route would run from Cleveland to Chicago. Around the world, Hyperloop is moving forward in China, Europe, Eastern Europe, India and the Middle East.
Although it's uncertain where the first Hyperloop in the U.S. might be, Riggs says Texas may not have a strategic advantage but may well have a political advantage.
"If there's a political will and an excited force in the policy realm, that can incite the public," he says.
Morris' Arlington-based North Central Texas Council of Governments and its policy planning body, the Regional Transportation Council (RTC), later this year will set in motion an environmental study of the Dallas-Arlington-Fort Worth corridor and a feasibility study of a proposed Hyperloop route connecting the Dallas-Fort Worth area with Austin through Waco and Temple-Killeen and as well as San Antonio and Laredo, which borders Mexico.
RTC set aside funding for a feasibility study that, in addition to Hyperloop, includes high-speed rail similar to systems in Europe and Asia.
The DFW region of the state is expected to grow by 4 million residents to a total of 11.2 million within 25 years. Population estimates released in March from the U.S. Census show the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington metropolitan area's 146,000-resident increase last year was the largest growth of any metro area in the country. That same data also show six of the top 10 largest-gaining counties were in Texas: Bexar, Collin, Dallas, Denton, Harris and Tarrant. Hyperloop's potential route would include all of them.
A possible route of approximately 640 miles that connects Houston, as well as Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Laredo – dubbed the Texas Triangle – was among the top 10 Hyperloop proposals chosen worldwide by Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One, another of the companies seeking to bring the technology to the masses. Last year, the company rebranded as Virgin Hyperloop One, after British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Group invested in the company.
Dan Katz, director of the company's global public policy and North American projects, says Virgin Hyperloop One has "long looked at Texas as a really fertile ground for Hyperloop."
"It's a very large state with pretty vast distances between metro areas that are densely populated. It's kind of perfect territory for Hyperloop to link one area to another and create a more seamless environment through the state," he says. "It really changes the game and interconnects all the different centers across Texas going from individual metropolitan areas to really an economic mega-region."
Katz says officials in Texas, like in other states collaborating with Virgin Hyperloop One, view the Hyperloop project as somewhat of a race.
"A lot of these different places we're talking to – they do want to be first. They made that clear to us," he says. "There's a lot of process involved. We're seeing government agencies doing smart things to unlock the process and make a Hyperloop system possible.
While tech entrepreneur Elon Musk initially proposed the Hyperloop concept in 2013 as a way to alleviate traffic and move people and goods focused on connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco, other companies took up the challenge.
"He proposed it in 2013 and we started, literally, two weeks afterward," Ahlborn says of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which has signed agreements to build China's first Hyperloop system in its Guizhou province. The company has commercial agreements with Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and Ukraine.
Ahlborn's company, along with Virgin Hyperloop One and Musk's infrastructure and tunnel-construction enterprise called the Boring Company, are among a handful of startups that jumped into this unofficial race to create a commercially viable Hyperloop system. Along with these three major California-based contenders, California-based Arrivo, Canada's TransPod and ET3 of Colorado have entered the fray, each with a nuanced version of Hyperloop.
The Boring Company did not respond to media requests for an interview.
Virgin Hyperloop One set up shop north of Las Vegas and in December reached speeds of up to 240 miles per hour, with a goal of 600 miles per hour. Musk's pod had reached 220 miles per hour a few months before, in August 2017, at his test track near his SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has announced it will construct a test track in France.
Despite the positivity expressed by these startups, Hyperloop isn't without its challenges. As companies test the technology, they have to create a system that's safe, physically comfortable for customers, cost-efficient and financially feasible for its operators and riders. The current tests haven't included passengers, and, from what the companies suggest, it may be years before that happens. While many of the companies say early- to mid-2020s is a goal for a commercial passenger system, consultant Riggs isn't convinced.
"There's a notion that Hyperloop is the one technology that will rule them all," he says. "But given the vast infrastructure costs, aerial and non-rail terrestrial routes may be able to outcompete technologies like Hyperloop in price to consumers. At the end of the day, if consumers aren't willing to pay the price for a trip, it's not a viable, large-scale technology and Hyperloop may only be for the hyper-rich."
Still, Riggs says studies, such as those slated for Texas, should move forward.
"It's worth studying from feasibility standpoint – which a lot of cities are doing – but my hypothesis is that if you look at it from a benefit to cost standpoint, the cost outweighs the benefit," he says.
Even though all of the companies working on Hyperloop technology are clear on what such transportation could mean for the future, it's also clear that Hyperloop is a worldwide experiment unfolding in stops and starts. Ahlborn says it's a plus that several companies are working on the same idea.
"In the end, it's a good thing that the more you have, the more likely everyone is passionate to bring this to light. We all benefit," he says. "If we fail, someone else will do it right."
Steven Duong, the Dallas-based lead consultant for the winning Texas Hyperloop proposal, says "there's not a playbook on how this process plays out."
"It's very exploratory because we're entering unchartered waters," he says. "Everyone realizes we're all exploring this together."