A hyperloop startup is sharing its vision for ultra-fast travel via pod at presentations in hotel ballrooms around the world — and a flash-bang demo in Las Vegas the presentations are not.
But that’s a good thing.
Meet Transpod, a Canadian hyperloop startup that thinks its proprietary technology — which it says improves upon magnetic levitation in both cost and efficiency — can enable the next, as the founders call it, “true leap forward” in transportation.
Founded in 2015, Transpod is just one of a handful of hyperloop startups trying to make the concept popularized by Elon Musk of levitated, low-resistance travel via tube a reality. It has $15 million in seed funding, which may sound promising, but it’s considerably less than other hyperloop startups, and the company has yet to debut a prototype or even run a demo.
But in contrast with other big names in hyperloop, which have become known for high-profile but relatively meaningless demo events and bad-boy-billionaire affiliations, Transpod’s approach is refreshingly practical, its timeline arguably feasible, and its founders genuine nerds. The founders say they believe earnestly in their technology, but are clear-eyed about the significant hurdles their company must overcome.
“It’s a multi-year major development and engineering project,” CTO Ryan Janzen said. “But we have a system where the physics and the business cases are designed right from the beginning for long-term success.”
Selling the hyperloop vision
In scuffed workboots peeking out from the legs of his baggy suit, Janzen, along with CEO Sebastien Gendron, laid out the value proposition for their company on Tuesday night in a small ballroom at the Marriott in Brooklyn, New York.
Transpod aims to bring its version of hyperloop travel to the world by working hand-in-hand with government regulators from the start. In response to Canadian officials’ requests, Transpod has convened a working group with transportation officials from the European Union and Canada. According to Gendron, thanks to conversations Transpod has had with EU officials, the EU will vote on whether to allocate funding to hyperloop regulation studies within six weeks.
Transpod plans to begin construction on its first line (either in Europe or Canada) by 2025, with the goal of being operational by 2030. By comparison, one of the leading American hyperloop startups, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), has said it wants to actually have an operational hyperloop by 2024. And the goal of Hyperloop One (now funded by Richard Branson), according to its website, is to have three tracks up and running by 2021.
HTT and Hyperloop One are considered the leading companies in the field. They have a head start over Transpod, but 2021 is a scant three years away — likely an overly ambitious schedule considering no government in the world has yet issued a regulatory framework or a way to assess the safety of hyperloop tech. (It’s not the first time a Branson-backed company has missed unrealistic deadlines — just look at Virgin Galactic.)
“If you want to start construction by 2025, you need to start studies right now,” Gendron said at the event. “Construction then takes five years minimum.”
Planning for the worst
Gendron and Janzen presented a timeline with clear steps that plan for the inevitable road blocks the project will hit and the inherent difficulty of introducing “something different” (as they call it) to the transportation market. The first and current phase is engineering and development, which also includes feasibility studies and other necessary surveys, including environmental impact. In 2020, testing will begin. Manufacturing is set to kick off in 2022, and Transpod says it wants to begin the “commissioning process” in 2025.
Hyperloop One and HTT are also initiating environmental impact and feasibility studies in multiple locations across the world, and both have projects already under construction. But neither firm was able to provide a roadmap similar to Transpod’s that outlines the steps that ladder up to a real, functioning hyperloop.
The progress timeline on Virgin’s Hyperloop One website includes art installations, visits from the Saudi Crown Prince, and, of course, the Las Vegas demo (which Mashable attended). It does not lay out what needs to happen to meet Hyperloop One’s aggressive 2021 goal. When it comes to regulation, a company blog post indicates that Hyperloop One plans to work at the state regulation level — and then approach the federal government for the ultimate OK.
Then there’s HTT, which says it’s making significant progress on a prototype site in France, and the company claims will be operational later this year. It also expects a small portion of its planned commercial hyperloop in Abu Dhabi to be ready by 2020. HTT is engaged in feasibility studies with governments and private firms in countries around the world, including the U.S. states of Ohio and Illinois. An HTT spokesperson told Mashable, “In doing these studies with governments we have set the stage for safety and regulatory standards, which will arrive with the first systems in Abu Dhabi and France.”
Though Transpod’s estimates regarding full deployment are more modest than its competitors, it has big plans for the intervening years, too. It wants to demo a prototype in France by 2019, and for its first actual “tracks,” the company has set its sights on its homeland of Canada. The high-traffic corridor between Toronto and Montreal is an obvious choice, but to start out, Gendron is enthusiastic about a hyperloop connecting Edmonton and Calgary, because the terrain is “flat and empty” — perfect for Transpod’s above-ground model (though it’ll need to deal with cold and snow 4-5 months out of the year).
For a company working on a entirely new mode of transportation, Transpod is surprisingly less concerned about the technology than it is about the logistics for actually introducing hyperloop to the public. That doesn’t seem to be a message conveyed by Elon Musk and his Boring company, who recently tweeted that a government official told him hyperloop was good to go.
Just received verbal govt approval for The Boring Company to build an underground NY-Phil-Balt-DC Hyperloop. NY-DC in 29 mins.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 20, 2017
“I know that it’s new, it’s never been done before,” Gendron said. “But just to get a pragmatic approach, that vehicle is the size of the bus. We’re not designing the next jumbo jet. The challenge is the integration of it, and the regulation of it, more than the technical feasibility.”
With hyperloop travel mostly theoretical at this point, Gendron’s assessment is probably correct. Getting ahead of the red tape governments are bound to put up before they let companies like Transpod move citizens at the speed of sound, is clearly a priority for him.
And more than any demo, that awareness is promising.