Hyperloop One — the well-funded, slightly dysfunctional, futuristic transportation startup — said Tuesday that it would study the possibility of building the world’s first passenger-ready hyperloop in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
But more than that, the company also released a slickly produced video to give us a glimpse at what riding in a hyperloop would be like from the passenger perspective. And the biggest shock is that the designers envision their Dubai hyperloop to be both ultrafast transportation system and a smartphone-based, on-demand service, à la Uber.
After making a reservation on your phone, an autonomously driven, box-shaped pod would show up at your location to take you to the hyperloop station. The pods would drive through the city alongside regular car traffic, with the video showing cars jockeying for space on the road with translucent, over-sized shoeboxes full of people.
At the portal, your pod docks together in a transporter with other pods carrying more passengers or maybe cargo. Then they are fed into a vacuum-sealed tube, where you’ll zip along at hundreds of miles per hour to your destination. Dubai to Abu Dhabi, a 97-mile journey that normally takes two hours by car, would be reduced to just 12 minutes.
The combination of an on-demand, autonomous transportation service with faster-than-a-jet speeds between cities is another sign that Hyperloop One will continue to ratchet up expectations in its quest to upend the world of freight and public transportation. But this fantastical vision of the world won’t come cheap: leaked documents from the company recently obtained by Forbes show the cost of building the hyperloop vastly exceed the vision of the original architect, billionaire Elon Musk. The route between Dubai and Abu Dhabi would cost $4.8 billion, or $52 million a mile. Musk’s original concept in 2013 was an $11.5 million-per-mile hyperloop.
The United Arab Emirates is staking a lot of money, resources, and reputation on Hyperloop One’s success. The feasibility study will be conducted by McKinsey & Co. and Bjarke Ingels Group, and paid for by the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority (RTA). The oil-rich kingdom is also an investor in Hyperloop One, helping to contribute to the company’s latest $50 million fundraising round. And Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, chair of Dubai’s DP World, the world’s third largest port, recently joined the company’s board of directors. In August, the company announced a deal to pursue a cargo hyperloop system with ports operator DP World at its deepwater Jebel Ali port in Dubai.
“With Hyperloop One, we will create a new means of transportation, keeping our region at the forefront of transportation technology and innovation,” said Mattar Al Tayer, chair of the RTA, in a statement.
The startup also has feasibility studies underway in Finland and Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Moscow, the Port of Los Angeles, and the UK. This flurry of activity is meant to convey the message that Hyperloop One is a serious business working on a serious transportation project with global implications. But it also appears to be an attempt to shift the conversation away from the embarrassing and reputation-damaging lawsuit filed earlier this year by Hyperloop One’s former chief technology officer. The company countersued and now both cases are winding their way through the courts.
Despite all this activity, the world has seen very little evidence that the hyperloop is little more than vaporware. Hyperloop One's first open-air test in the Nevada desert in May featured a metal sled shooting down a train track at a little more than 100 mph. The other LA-based startup, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, has yet to conduct any public demonstrations.
But that could change in 2017, when Hyperloop One says it plans to show off the full-scale prototype it’s building in Nevada. Also in January, Elon Musk’s SpaceX will host a public test in California featuring hyperloop pods built by over a dozen high school and college engineering teams. In other words, the hyperloop is in for a very busy 2017.