Virgin Hyperloop hits an important milestone: the first human passenger test

Virgin Hyperloop announced that for the first time it has conducted a test of its ultra-fast transportation system with human passengers.

The test took place on Sunday afternoon at the company’s DevLoop test track in the desert outside Las Vegas, Nevada. The first two passengers were Virgin Hyperloop’s chief technology officer and co-founder, Josh Giegel, and head of passenger experience, Sara Luchian. After strapping into their seats in the company’s gleaming white and red hyperloop pod, dubbed Pegasus, they were transferred into an airlock as the air inside the enclosed vacuum tube was removed. The pod then accelerated to a brisk 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) down the length of the track, before slowing down to a stop.

It’s an important achievement for Virgin Hyperloop, which was founded in 2014 on the premise of making Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s vision of a futuristic transportation system of magnetically levitating pods traveling through nearly airless tubes at speeds of up to 760 mph (1,223 km/h) a reality.

The DevLoop test track is 500 meters long and 3.3 meters in diameter. The track is located about 30 minutes from Las Vegas, out in the kind of desert that hyperloop pods could one day traverse in minutes. The company says it has conducted over 400 tests on that track, but never before with human passengers — until today.

“No one has done anything close to what we’re talking about right now,” Jay Walder, CEO of Virgin Hyperloop, told The Verge. “This is a full scale, working hyperloop that is not just going to run in a vacuum environment, but is going to have a person in it. No one has come close to doing it.”

The Pegasus pod used for the first passenger test, also called XP-2, was designed with help from famed Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’ design firm. It represents a scaled-down version of what Virgin Hyperloop hopes will eventually be a full-sized pod capable of carrying up to 23 passengers. It weighs 2.5 tons and measures about 15-18 feet long, according to Giegel. Inside, its lush white interior is meant to be familiar to passengers, who may not be immediately comfortable with the idea of slingshotting through a vacuum-sealed tube at the speed of a commercial jet.

“This is not like some crazy, newfangled science fiction invention,” Luchian said in an interview several days before the test. “This is something that reminds me of a place that I’ve been and I’ve used many times, that I would feel comfortable putting grandma in and sending her on a visit somewhere.”

Prior to the test, Luchian said she was eager to experience the acceleration, as well as monitor the temperature inside the pod and the ventilation system. Giegel said he wanted to see the system’s safety procedures in action, and would be keeping track of whether they’re able to maintain communication with operators during the test. “If it’s not safe enough for me, it’s not safe enough for anyone,” he said.

Giegel said the acceleration will feel similar to a plane taking off. The pod is propelled by magnetic levitation — the same technology used for bullet trains. The top speed of the fastest commercial bullet train, the Shanghai Maglev, hovers around 300 mph.

To be sure, the pod didn’t reach the hyperloop’s theoretical maximum speed of 760 mph. Virgin Hyperloop projects that with enough track it can eventually get up to 670 mph — but the company’s record to date is 240 mph, which it hit in 2017.

“It’ll be a bit short,” Giegel said before the test. “We’ll get up to probably about 100 miles an hour, a little over, and we’ll accelerate, decelerate, and it’ll be smooth. We’re not astronauts, we’re just there — we’re sitting in it.”

In 2013, Musk published his “alpha paper” which theorized that aerodynamic aluminum capsules filled with passengers or cargo could be propelled through a nearly airless tube at airliner-speeds of up to 760 mph. These tubes, either raised on pylons or sunk beneath the earth, could be built either within or between cities. He called it a “fifth mode of transportation” and argued it could help change the way we live, work, trade, and travel. The most eye-catching scenario he proposed was a trip from LA to San Francisco in only 30 minutes. The idea captured the imaginations of engineers and investors across the world.

Virgin Hyperloop was originally founded as Hyperloop Technologies before changing its name to Hyperloop One in 2016 and then again to Virgin Hyperloop One after being acquired by Richard Branson’s company. The company came out of the gate strong with tens of millions of dollars of funding and a bold vision of hyperloop systems all around the globe.

But it wasn’t always smooth traveling for Virgin Hyperloop. In 2017, the company settled a lawsuit with one of its co-founders over competing claims of harassment and sabotage. A year later, another co-founder was ousted amid allegations of sexual assault and misconduct.

The company was also strapped for cash for a notable stretch of time. Branson helped secure a new $50 million investment from two existing investors, which helped meet payroll obligations. More recently, Virgin Hyperloop raised $172 million in new funding in 2019, $90 million of which came from Dubai port operator DP World, which has previously invested $25 million in the company and already has two seats on the startup’s board of directors.

After that, things settled down, with Giegel and his team working diligently to validate the technology with a series of tests. On the regulatory front, things are looking brighter. The company recently announced its plan to build a $500 million certification center to advance its vision of the future of high-speed transportation in West Virginia. And the federal government has recently laid out the framework for regulating the hyperloop, giving hope to companies like Virgin Hyperloop that it may eventually break ground on a full-sized operational hyperloop system.

Critics say the hyperloop may be technically feasible, but still only amounts to vaporware. It’s been called a “utopian vision” that would be financially impossible to achieve. It’s one of those technologies that is also “just around the corner” according to its boosters — despite outwardly appearing to still being years away from completion. In 2017, Virgin Hyperloop’s top executives told The Verge they expect to see “working hyperloops around the world... by 2020.” That deadline was later pushed to 2021, the year they believe the hyperloop will be ready for human passengers.

There are still a lot of safety questions that need to be answered, said Constantine Samaras, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. “A hyperloop vehicle will travel much faster than high-speed rail, maybe even reaching 760 mph,” Samaras said in an email. “Maintaining safety at such high speeds is very important, and all of the unforeseen disasters need to be engineered into the system. An earthquake? The vacuum tube breaks? The train somehow punches through the tube? At such high speeds, these events amplify the danger, and so safety has to be paramount.”

No government in the world has awarded a contract or approved the building of a hyperloop system yet. It’s unclear how much it would cost to build a hyperloop, but surely it would be in the billions of dollars. Leaked financial documents in 2016 suggested the hyperloop would cost between $9 billion and $13 billion, or between $84 million and $121 million per mile — significantly more than high-speed rail. Even with public funding, any company would need to raise millions of dollars in funding, acquire the enormous tracks of land, and certify that the hyperloop can be operated safely. Which is all to say, the hyperloop is still very far off.

The ability to maintain a vacuum in the tube, especially one hundreds of miles long, is another enormous challenge. Every time a pod arrives at a station, it has to decelerate and stop. Then the airlock will have to close, pressurize, and open again. Then the pod has to clear the airlock before the next pod arrives. The speed at which this occurs will determine the distance between pods. Turning will also be extremely difficult. A hyperloop would need approximately six miles to execute a 90-degree turn at 600 mph, a Virgin Hyperloop engineer once told the New York Times.

Another potential hurdle is headways. The longer the headway, the less capacity these pods will have, which may determine how useful a mass transit system the hyperloop can be. Operators can try to compensate by building larger pods, but then they’ll need stronger steel for their tubes to accommodate the added weight, and that spells higher costs.

Walder, who has run public transportation systems in China and the US and most recently was head of Citi Bike in New York City, said that headways would be “a few seconds apart” in a full-scale, commercially operational hyperloop, compared to 2 minutes or more for most trains.

Luchian said she was excited, if a little nervous. “A little bit of nervous energy,” she said, “only because I can appreciate the gravitas of the moment.”

She said it was important the experience of riding in the hyperloop feel comfortable and familiar, like riding in a train, other normal people would reject it as a feasible and safe mode of transportation. She noted that neither Giegel nor herself received special training beforehand or wore protective clothing like astronauts.

“Even for such a momentous occasion, for a technology that was literally a pipe dream like six, seven years ago, we don’t have to do all of these iterations with specialists,” she said. “We’re getting right in.”

For Giegel, this test was the culmination of years of labor. It takes place almost six years after he quit his job as a systems propulsion lead at Virgin Galactic to start a hyperloop company in his garage.

“I think a long time from now, this moment, this thing in the desert that wouldn’t have existed unless we put it here, is going to be that spot where people can look and say, ‘that was a really big idea, it was a really risky idea,’” he said, “‘but they came, they did it, and they made it successful.’”

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Comments

i’m going to choose to be optimistic and say both congratulations on making this far and good luck on the continued journey to everyone involved. i’d love to ride one of these one day.

OK, I’m impressed. And Saturday Bezos is flying four astronauts to the International Space Station. This isn’t the way that science fiction told us the future was going to be. (OK, ok, The Man Who Sold the Moon and the Genesis II subshuttles.)

As always, the future arrives earlier than you expect, and in a different order. That used to be my .sig.

Bezos’s tourist trap hasn’t even gone orbital, let alone a manned mission to the ISS.

This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Bezos isn’t flying anyone anywhere on Saturday.

Sorry, brain glitch. Of course, it’s Elon Musk and SpaceX going to the ISS, not Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin.

Hey, give me a break. The brain is 75 years old, and was maxed out sometime in the 90s. However, when I was on Spacelab, I worked with oversight guys from NASA who had worked for von Braun at Peenemünde. How many of you can say that?

How many of you can say that?

Well, we can all SAY it. As can you. Whether any of them are true statements we can’t be sure.

You weren’t at any of the staff meetings.

Sorry, this is ridiculous… when most of the country could benefit from high-speed rail, what is the sense of a more expensive option for fewer travelers that takes such massive public investment?

What public investment?

It’s just like any mass transit technology. When it’s ready for prime time it will go through the usual process.

I wish there was an downvote button

Ok I thought the 2013 paper was not vacuum tubes and maglev at all – instead, it was partial vacuum, with air-bearings on the pod, and fans that would pull air in in front of the pod and push it out the back to maintain the partial vacuum.

I could be wrong – but I thought the whole point was to avoid maglev vacuum tubes due to their expense and technical difficulties.

Is this partial vacuum/air-bearings idea even less technically possible? What happened to that?

There’s a couple student Hyperloop competition teams that are still using air bearings, but I think most efforts have moved to maglev.

From what I’ve read, air bearings require a very high rate of airflow to the bearings to maintain levitation, which poses engineering challenges and has the potential to fail catastrophically. Whereas maglev using Inductrack is well-studied and has passive safety even if power is lost.

You’re absolutely correct.

Vactrains were theorized more than 200 years ago, and large mag-lev trains have been in development since the 1960s, and in commercial operation (at speeds faster than this test module has ever achieved) since the early-2000s.

The entire point of the Hyperloop whitepaper was to try and overcome the complexities and costs of mag-lev by using a different architecture. But it wasn’t really a research paper – it was just an idea. A concept.

And so far, the actual engineering explorations have largely discarded any of the ‘new’ ideas presented in the Hyperloop whitepaper. Whether it is because they are too complex, too impractical, or too expensive, I don’t know – but obviously there have been a lot of smart engineers that have looked at it and taken things in a much more conventional direction.

What we’re left with at this point is basically a small mag-lev train that trades passenger capacity, safety, logistical simplicity, and economic feasibility for [i]extremely[/i] high speeds. Maybe there are a few people somewhere that are interested in that, but given that this is fixed infrastructure, it looks an awful lot like trying to replace 787s with Concordes.

I am all for big thinking scientific research and experimental development, even if the costs are high. Nuclear fusion is one of those areas, where the odds of success may be relatively low, and the costs extremely high, but the fundamental upside is potentially gamechanging for civilization. So it’s worth doing! (Especially because those ‘extremely high’ costs are ultimately rounding errors in real government budgets). But I just don’t see anywhere near the same kind of upside for the Hyperloop, at least not given the direction that all the successful test vehicles that look like they might be destined for commercial production are taking.

Anything that involves air compression/ Vacuum is a big nope for me.
I still can’t get the story of those 4 divers in a pod that was not properly depressurized out of my head.
Death caused by Delta P is a terrifying way to go.

Totally Agree! I would never board a Hyperloop train, ever. If the tube would be punctured behind the pod, the whole thing would basically become a ping pong cannon, accelerating the pod and the people inside it to insane speeds that will be fatal at the end of the ride.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIL3HN4PQlI

I believe they don’t aim for true vacuum, just less pressure to help with air resistance, still very complex and I think improbable to happen in any useful scale

To be fair, there’s no chance of anything at all remotely like the Byford Dolphin diving bell accident in a Hyperloop. The diving bell was pressurized to extremely high pressures – 9 atm, or >130 psi, greater than the superpressure that inside a transport truck tire. The accident occured when there was explosive decompression between that 9 atm chamber and standard 1 atm ambient pressure. So the pressure difference there is 8 atm / ~118 psi.

By contrast, the Hyperloop is at most trying to evacuate to near vacuum (100 Pa / ~0.02 psi) so the greatest possible pressure difference between the vehicle and the surrounding tube is 1 atm, and almost certainly less. It’s much more similar to the scenario of a rupture happening in an aircraft cruising at 30,000 ft – potentially still bad, but roughly an order of magnitude less bad, and nothing really like the movies.

I don’t think it could be fatal in that way. Definitely there are safety challenges that would make the Hyperloop fatal in other ways, but I don’t think explosion decompression is the primary one to worry about.

A few notes:

  • High speed rail is difficult to push past 300 mph because of the resistance to air and rolling resistance etc. (although the latter is solved by maglev tech). Noise pollution is also a big problem for high speed trains because of the disturbance it creates
  • High Speed rail travel only matches air travel door to door for distances of less than 500 miles (as rail gets you city center to city center, unlike air travel)
  • Air travel with batteries is a really impossible dream because of power density requirements.
  • high speed rail has to slow down when it goes through tunnels because of the enormous pressure it creates and how it discomforts the passengers. Therefore high-speed rail across mountainous area and below the sea is difficult to realize.

The hyperloop can offer travel faster than air (hyperloop is supposed to go up to 700mph), doesn’t suffer for tunnel pressurization, can be fully green if powered by renewable energies, and thus can be used for intercontinental travel but the tunnels would need to be built at great expense.

At equal travel time I would prefer a hyperloop travel from London to New York compared to flying with a plane

I wonder if that cost comparison vs rail in the article is accurate for the United States. Here, the biggest cost factor by far is land acquisition. Even under eminent domain, it’s shockingly expensive. It’s also time-consuming, which adds to the costs even further.

I thought one of the advantages of a hyperloop was that it requires a smaller right-of-way than rail (whether above or underground), which provides a built-in cost savings.

It’s probably a fictional cost savings to say that a Hyperloop will require a much smaller right of way. As mentioned in the article, if the Hyperloop is ultimately able to operate anywhere near its target design speed, it will require miles of curved track to make any turn. So for any single corner, you’re almost certainly going to need to be dealing with multiple landowning stakeholders. It adds an entirely new challenge to route planning.

"Walder, who has run public transportation systems in China and the US and most recently was head of Citi Bike in New York City, said that headways would be "a few seconds apart" in a full-scale, commercially operational hyperloop, compared to 2 minutes or more for most trains."

In theory, such short headways are possible but are a technology that must be developed and implemented which takes time and money and is seldom mentioned in non-technical articles such as this.

they might be able to sell the tech to Europe or Asia, but it’ll never happen in the NIMBY country

Might as well call it Hype Loop

Okay, but that’s not even that fast, and way more inefficient than a whole train full of people going 3x as fast out in the air with windows and a view like you know, bullet trains…

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