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Hyperloop backers are building hype, but many questions remain

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Ever since Elon Musk published his first preliminary designs for the Hyperloop in 2013, the technology has always involved a certain amount of science fiction. Two years later, with companies now claiming they will actually build the thing, this element of the fantastical is as present as before. Speaking at engineering showcase event Construct//Disrupt in London this week, the COO of Hyperloop Transport Technologies (HTT), Bibop Gresta, promised that the Hyperloop would be "ten times better than any other system," with unparalleled safety, artificially intelligent capsules, and speeds that will "smoke the Japanese high-speed rail." Unfortunately, much is still unproven.

"We are not a company, we are movement."

HTT is one of a pair of companies promising to have Hyperloop tracks up and running in the near future. Unlike the similarly named Hyperloop Technologies, HTT is currently working on a crowdsourced model, with its engineers and designers exchanging their time for equity in the company. "We are not a company, we are movement," says Gresta, adding that HTT has signed up almost 500 engineers from 21 countries, including current and former employees of Tesla, NASA, SpaceX, and Boeing. "These are people that literally changed the history of this planet," he says.

Right now, though, the company only has blueprints. HTT’s plan is to build an 8-kilometer track in Quay Valley, a proposed town in California halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. "We’re filing the permission to build," Gresta tells The Verge. "We’re in the process of filing, and then [once that’s done] a giant clock starts in my head. Thirty-two months. Thirty-two months before the first passenger." The planning permission is "expected in two to three weeks," he says, "if everything goes well."

Gresta is confident about the schedule, but there are numerous challenges, not least of all the fact that Quay Valley doesn’t yet exist. Plans for the model town were first proposed in 2007, with the development being sold as a sustainable community complete with schools, offices, shops, and an amusement park. The project was put on hold due to a dispute over water rights, but Gresta says it’s now back on track and that developers will be breaking ground at the beginning of 2016. (There’s some uncertainty on this date. Roy Higgs, an architect involved in the project, told The Verge over the phone that he didn’t think the planning ordinances would be in place until the third quarter of next year.) "It’s amazing," Gresta tells the audience. "It’s north of Los Angeles, it’s called Quay Valley and it will be the dream city of the 21st century."

The proposed Hyperloop test track in Quay Valley.

Before Quay Valley is built (or attracts enough occupants to make use of HTT’s Hyperloop), there will be technical challenges. The feasibility of Musk’s original white paper on the Hyperloop has been disputed by engineers — HTT itself has made several adjustments — and although the essential concepts are sound, much of the project relies on untested technology. Gresta, however, says HTT has solved many of its problems, thanks in part to the discovery of a certain patent in a "US national laboratory." When pushed about which lab and what technology, he replies: "Why are you asking? It’s a facility and the patent was there since the ‘90s."

HTT has no immediate plans to publish a white paper on its technology

HTT says it will not be publishing its own white paper on its technology — or at least not for the moment — for fear of its designs being copied. "We haven’t disclosed anything we are doing because there’s another company [Hyperloop Technologies] that came out months ago and we didn’t like their approach," says Gresta. "These guys came out and they used our same name and they used our logo. So this is kind of weird."

HTT also needs to raise money. Brainpower might be free, contributed by clever, optimistic people who care about changing the world and can afford to contribute their time gratis, but concrete and steel costs money. Gresta says that the company is talking with private investors in Indonesia, China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, but that he can’t give anymore details while negotiations are still underway. HTT plans to IPO next year (this was originally promised to take place before the end of 2015), but again, no details are available on a possible date. The project has, however, received an unspecified amount of donations from its team members. All in all, HTT expects the 8-kilometer track in Quay Valley to cost $150 million, but it won't disclose how much of this has been raised so far.

Hyperloop will be able to "substitute the entire flight industry between Los Angeles and San Francisco."

During his talk, Gresta is effusive about the benefits of the Hyperloop. Everything, he says, is an opportunity. The pylons that support the tubes won’t just be earthquake proof, they’ll be vertical farms and carbon dioxides scrubbers. The track itself will be the "longest billboard on the planet" and provide extra revenue. With even a single tube running at full capacity (transporting 28 passengers every 30 seconds), Gresta says the company will be able to "substitute the entire flight industry between Los Angeles and San Francisco four times."

At one point during his talk, Gresta touches upon the history of the Hyperloop and related tube-based travel systems, bringing up a slide from the Simpsons episode "Marge vs. the Monorail" to demonstrate its roots. "Even The Simpsons showed an example," he says. (Of course, Gresta doesn't mention the episode's protagonist: Lyle Lanley, a charming, charismatic showman who persuades the residents of Springfield that there’s "nothing on Earth like a genuine, bona fide, electrified, six-car monorail," before skipping town.)

Ultimately, there are just so many questions still to ask about the Hyperloop. Some are exciting, like how will it deal with a crash, and some more tedious, like how will they get planning permission from farmers and landowners along the Hyperloop’s path. Gresta has an answer for all of these (even if it’s just to say the subject can’t be talked about in detail yet), but sometimes it seems the more honest reply would be "I don’t know." There are many people who believe in the possibility of the Hyperloop, but if the technology is going to ever get up and running, it’s pragmatism, not promises, that’s needed.