Hyperloop technology could revolutionise mass passenger transportation at beyond the speed of sound. StrategicRISK’s European editor met with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies chairman Bibop Gresta to examine the risks around making the project a reality

Could the future of mass passenger travel lie in a concept first developed almost 150 years ago? While that might seem an unlikely prospect in itself, the idea becomes almost unimaginable when it also involves propelling people through a pipe at supersonic speeds of around 1300kph. Yet what might seem a fantasy to many observers is very much everyday reality for Bibop Gresta, the effervescent chairman of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.

Dressed in a skinny suit, boxfresh trainers and designer sunglasses, first appearances suggest he might be more at home in a rock band or hosting a TV gameshow than at a risk and insurance conference. But Gresta is full of contradictions.

Look beneath the showbiz veneer and it is clear that he is a serious and successful businessman – albeit one with a licence to entertain. Gresta’s appearance at the recent inaugural Dubai World Insurance Congress, co-hosted by our sister title Global Reinsurance, was the highlight of a special StrategicRISK Risk Management Lab session where he revealed his vision for the transport revolution he is spearheading and set out the risk challenges that need to be overcome to make it reality.

Gresta might well be a non-conformist but his track record for building companies across a range of industries – “more than 70 in total, three from start up to IPO” – shows the methods of this serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist really work. He is the first to agree though that Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is by far his most ambitious project. And Gresta confesses that he too thought the idea was “completely crazy” when first approached to build the business - so much so, he says, “I turned it down”.

The initial impetus for Hyperloop came from a white paper released by Tesla and PayPal mogul and inventor Elon Musk. In 2012 he published a document outlining the theory behind the system for pneumatic transportation and effectively threw down the gauntlet for companies to develop the concept and bring it to life. Musk, says Gresta, did not invent the technology “he just shone a giant spotlight onto it”.

Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of crowdsourcing company JumpStarter was one of those who took up the challenge. He published Musk’s paper on his own website to get backing from the scientific community and also set out to win support from Gresta.

“At that time I didn’t even know what crowd sourcing was – it was relatively unknown,” Gresta says.

“Dirk told me that instead of asking people for money, crowd sourcing meant you ask them for their time and ideas.

“I asked him how much money he had raised and he said ‘None, I don’t need money’. I was shocked and said ‘you want to build a Hyperloop but you haven’t raised a penny and you want to do it through crowdsourcing?’

I told him I wasn’t interested – it wouldn’t happen.”

That might well have been the end of the matter but for the persistence of Ahlborn.

“I was so arrogant to think that I knew everything about start-ups,” Gresta says.

“Dirk said he had 100 scientists working for him. He didn’t pay them, instead he gave them stock options. He told me they had analysed Musk’s white paper, understood what was wrong and ‘fixed it’.”

Ignoring Gresta’s incredulity and natural resistance to the idea Ahlborn handed him Musk’s white paper – a move which ultimately prompted a remarkable volte face. Gresta read it, researched it and then immersed himself in an extensive feasibility study that ultimately led to the formation of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.

“I was very sceptical when I opened the document. I just wanted to find two arguments so I could tell him I was not interested. That was my approach,” Gresta says.

“But I was hooked after reading only the first few lines because he had 100 of the best people on the planet - people from NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin - and they were all contributing without being paid. From that moment I did not do anything else but study. There were people who had worked with Einstein and on the Apollo missions and they were all saying the same thing: this is do-able. It is not difficult. The only really difficult part was levitation and propulsion and they had the solution for this.”

One of the reasons why the system was “do-able” is because the idea has existed in various forms since 1870 when Alfred Ely Beach patented a design for an air-powered subway train propelled along a track by fans. The version being developed by Gresta’s Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is simply the latest and most sophisticated incarnation of this – albeit one unrecognisable from Beach’s original proposal for pneumatic transit. His Hyperloop system uses individual pods to carry up to 28 passengers through a vacuum tube using magnetic propulsion.

“Levitation was the key,” says Gresta, revealing his Eureka! moment. “We use passive levitation instead of active levitation.” In lay terms this passive levitation lifts the pod off the track using magnets arranged over aluminium which allows it to effectively float without using power. Active levitation uses power to achieve the same result but is expensive to the point where it is “not cost effective” says Gresta.

“Until now passive levitation was not possible and active levitation makes the cost of infrastructure too high,” says Gresta. He is dismissive of rival companies which also took up Musk’s Hyperloop challenge for their reliance on powered magnetic levitation. “It is not going to work,” he says. “What we have with Mag Lev for example is a system that will never recoup the money you invest. You have to electrify the track for miles and this makes the system very expensive to build and also to maintain.”

The breakthrough around passive levitation, made at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US, was crucial to the commercial viability of the Hyperloop project but it was also classified military technology as it was developed originally to stabilise ballistic trajectories. Gresta says he paid less than US $300,000 to declassify it using a law which allows for use in civil industries. With this in place, Gresta says, he was ready to commit: “I called Dirk. I told him he was completely crazy and said I had bad news – I was crazier than he was. I said he was onto something and would achieve something extraordinary – and we would do it together.”

Fast forward three years and the project is moving rapidly. “We are ready to build our first prototype,” says Gresta. “We have done all the tests and real-life simulation. We used a track that was built by General Atomics and the Lawrence Livermore Lab and we have used computational fluid dynamics simulations. Now with CFD we can send people to Mars so we are capable of simulating anything also, with an offset, calculating the margin of error. So we are ready to build, we have done all our homework and we are also working on regulation for certification.”

An announcement on the prototype is expected in the next few months, says Gresta.

Talks are also ongoing with governments, authorities and businesses in 21 countries around the world regarding potential Hyperloop partnerships. The day before our meeting, Gresta was in Qatar discussing a feasibility project and he is at a relatively advanced stage with transport officials in Abu Dhabi.

“We are very excited, it is an amazing moment for us and we are ready to go to the next level,” says Gresta. Once the green light to proceed is given, Gresta believes the service will be able carry passengers within 38 months.

Developing such a unique project is not without risks but Gresta is unfazed by the engineering challenges. Much of his past business experience is around building amusement parks which he believes is “far more difficult” than Hyperloop.

“Every time you build a park you have to reinvent, you have to entertain and in an amusement park you have to be sure to create transportation systems that won’t kill anyone” Gresta says.

“You find someone who is a creative genius who decides they want to fly people around, spin them three times and brake into a wall of water followed by an explosion. Then you have to make this possible. That’s crazy engineering – not Hyperloop!” Regulation is potentially more of an obstacle because it “can be slower than the technology”, he says.

“We are working with regulators so we can transform what we are doing into the regulation process because we are not an aeroplane, train, car or boat: we are the fifth mode of transportation, the Hyperloop. And that means new regulation.”

Better awareness around Hyperloop is crucial to its success both in terms of winning approval from regulators and also gaining acceptance among the wider public of what Gresta and his colleagues are trying to achieve. “That,” he says, “is going to take time” but will help overcome the “fear and lack of vision” he identifies as reasons why Hyperloop projects have failed in the past. “Lack of understanding of the opportunity about how the world would be moving in the future was the biggest hurdle for Hyperloop,” he says.

Gresta likens the current phase of Hyperloop to the dawn of the era of flight more than a century ago.

“Nobody wanted to ride in an aeroplane at first because they thought they were dangerous,” he says. “Then people adapted. This time [with Hyperloop] I think the adaptation process will be faster because we have the technology. New generations are more willing to embrace change and technology.”

While its sheer speed might seem daunting, Gresta is keen to emphasise the safety aspects of Hyperloop which he says are far greater than conventional modes of transport. “The tube is shielded from the weather and is clear of obstructions,” he says. Most importantly though because artificial intelligence is deployed to run the system “there is no human error in the process” – thus, he says, eliminating the biggest cause of transport accidents.

On the face of it, Hyperloop is an extraordinary concept to grasp: a driverless capsule that can travel incredibly quickly ferrying passengers through an airless tube network. The tubes themselves are sited above ground level, supported by a network of pylons. Up to eight tubes can be connected to a single pylon. “You can build the tubes on top of existing rails or highways – and create a system that is completely sustainable and can be scaled up, almost like Lego,” says Gresta.

What is perhaps most striking about Hyperloop is not simply that it is very fast it is also incredibly efficient, says Gresta: “You use a combination of renewable energy and it is up to 30% more efficient than the energy that it consumes.”

He believes perceptions of Hyperloop should be contextualised by existing experiences. “We have been travelling at or around the speed of sound for some time in aircraft,” says Gresta “but in an aeroplane the acceleration and deceleration is designed is such a way that you almost don’t feel it.”

Gresta’s Hyperloop promises smooth acceleration and controlled deceleration so that passengers remain comfortable and don’t notice the speed changes in a similar way. At a slow comfortable speed the pod rises up from the track and the levitation remains constant for the duration of the journey. Only when the pod slows and is travelling at safe speed will it gently touch down on the track again.

Hard braking is possible, however. A capsule can be stopped in 6.4 seconds ready so an evacuation can start in case of an emergency but Gresta says such incidences are likely to be rare.

“When I first considered the risk management side of the Hyperloop I was scared,” says Gresta. “I thought we would never be able to achieve this but actually what we are doing is very simple, we are creating a technology that is safer by definition.”

To reinforce his point, Gresta breaks down the Hyperloop into its constituent elements and says that all are current accepted technologies. It is just the way in which they are combined which is different.

“Do we have the technology to build the tube? Yes. Do we have the technology to evacuate it? Yes. Do we know how to build pylons? Yes. Do we know how to build an aircraft? Yes, we have it. At the end when you isolate all the individual elements we are simply building something that exists already,” says Gresta.

That is perhaps an oversimplification as Gresta also says Hyperloop is deploying new technology – some of which has been created by the company itself. The project has already developed a new carbon fibre smart material that contains sensors to detect leaks and also to undertake temperature and pressure evaluation. “This can not only enhance security but also allow you to predict problems – and it will have a big impact on risk,” says Gresta.

The company is setting up a Hyperloop Innovation Lab to further develop new ideas. “The technology we are working on will not only disrupt transportation but also will improve the technology in each sector we work on because the technology for Hyperloop can also be used for other industries,” says Gresta. “That is our model we work on – we take the ideas for Hyperloop and release them for all the other industries.”

Gresta is also planning to use 3-D printers to manufacture the Hyperloop track and the company is designing new robots to handle the process, he says.

Critical to the acceptance of Hyperloop is the passenger experience which Gresta calls “a giant leap”. Inside the pods passengers can look out of a virtual window which can “simulate reality with an appropriate view” or interact with touchscreen technology lining the interior.

Gresta says the window design is now being adopted by other train manufacturers.

The driverless trains will depart from and arrive at purpose built stations which can process thousands of people per hour in a seamless operation. Each terminus is designed like a clock and rotates for docking so passengers can board and disembark - the type of feature you might find on a ride at one of Gresta’s amusement parks, albeit on a much bigger scale.

He also envisages that the system itself will run like clockwork in every sense - operating 24 hours a day and with three channels per tube “you can guarantee that there are no obstructions by other capsules – so even if one is delayed, movement is continuous”.

One of the key planned routes for Hyperloop is between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Musk believes that a Hyperloop pod could undertake the 613km journey in 30 mins – half the time it takes by plane. Gresta says the system could “substitute the entire airline industry” on that route. While this looks like the potential emergence of yet another disruptive technology, Gresta says that instead of seeking to compete with airlines, he is looking to partner with them once proven commercially.

“They [the airlines] are getting it – they are fine,” says Gresta. “I am giving them the tools and they will run it.”

Gresta believes the future of travel belongs to Hyperloop but accepts there is still work to be done to convince the world of his vision. “The media likes to push you up and pull you down - there has been so many articles with misinformation and their only goal is to talk bad to make news.”

He also understands that Hyperloop is very much a work in progress and this is where crowd sourcing continues to have an impact.

“We are an open platform,” he says. “We are in constant dialogue with the planet asking for information, contributions – if you have something better than what we are doing, please join the team.”

Indeed, whatever the outcome with Hyperloop, crowd sourcing could be its most impressive legacy.

“We have created the biggest crowdsourcing project on the planet,” says Gresta. “We are on the verge of something much bigger than Hyperloop. It is creating a new generation of companies and a new way to solve the problems of humanity.”