Popular Science: Hyped Up: Startups Race to Bring the Hyperloop to Life


Maybe it was the Guns N’ Roses pumping from the speakers. Or maybe it was the spell of Dubai itself, a newly minted megalopolis whose explosion from the Arabian sands screamed that the past was dead and the future had arrived. Whatever it was, when Dirk Ahlborn launched into his speech at the Middle East Rail conference in March, he basically gave the roomful of executives the finger. “There hasn’t been any real innovation in the rail industry for—I don’t know how long,” he said. “Either disrupt yourself or you are going to be disrupted.”

The audience sitting attentively in the convention hall included men in traditional dishdashas and women in black abayas. Other attendees wore suits and ties or even heels and short skirts. Together they formed the industry’s elite, people who built trains and ran railways around the world, while Ahlborn was the CEO of a startup, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), that hadn’t carried a single passenger or laid an inch of track.

But restraint doesn’t come naturally to Ahlborn, who wore, beneath his black suit, a white shirt open several buttons from the collar. Tall, with thinning brown hair and ruddy cheeks, Ahlborn began to pace the stage, TED-talk style, as he explained his vision for the future of transportation. “What is the hyperloop?” he asked. “It is a capsule, full of people, in a tube, elevated on pylons, going really fast. It’s that simple.”
Hyperloop capsules would use either a magnetic field or a continuous blast of compressed air to float above the bottom of the tube. Pumps would remove most of the tube’s air, creating an extremely low-pressure environment. Minimal air means minimal friction, so the capsules would travel at up to 760 miles per hour, powered entirely by solar panels. “How would your life be if you could travel 600 kilometers in half an hour, with a ticket price of $30?” Ahlborn asked. “If we achieve that, we really change the way we live.”

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