Time: April 3, 2018
SAN FRANCISCO — The fantastical 700-mph transportation system known as hyperloop appeared to inch closer to a possible Saudi Arabian debut after a weekend gathering in the American desert.
On Sunday, Richard Branson, the chairman of Silicon Valley startup Virgin Hyperloop One, helped unveil a sleek hyperloop pod painted with the Saudi flag at the Mojave test site of Branson’s space company Virgin Galactic.
On hand for the event was Saudi defense minister Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, part of a broader tech tour that includes meetings with Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing, according to Bloomberg.
The Saudi kingdom, which is in the throes of radical cultural change that has seen many of its wealthiest citizens jailed but also promises new freedoms for women, has formulated a Vision 2030 plan that emphasizes a shift to renewable energy. Hyperloop runs on electricity that could be powered by solar.
“Hyperloop is the catalyst to enable all fourth-generation technologies to flourish in the Kingdom while creating a vibrant society and thriving economy through visionary cities and high-tech clusters,” the Saudi minister said in a statement.
Virgin Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd added that the visit and talks “kick off the next phase that will make [Virgin Hyperloop One] a reality in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
The Vision 2030 Hyperloop pod is identical to one Virgin Hyperloop One has been putting through tests at its private facility outside of Las Vegas. Although the tube-based magnetic levitation system in theory would be able to reach speeds of 700 mph, Virgin Hyperloop One’s current top pod speed is 240 mph, reached during a test in December.
Saudi Arabia is among a handful of countries that have entered into feasibility studies with the tech startup, which ultimately aims to sell its engineering services to anyone willing to plunk down billions to make the radical transportation concept a reality.
Other interested international parties include consortiums in Russia, India and Scandinavia.
In the U.S., the company recently announced a partnership with the Missouri Hyperloop Coalition, the University of Missouri System and the global engineering firm Black & Veatch to conduct an in-depth feasibility study for a hyperloop route along the I-70 corridor between St. Louis and Kansas City.
Although still in its testing phase, hyperloop — which was proposed in a 2013 white paper by Tesla CEO Elon Musk — is seen by proponents as a way to move people and freight at high speeds and at lower costs, given that electricity and momentum would combine to keep the pods moving almost effortlessly at near the speed of sound.
A trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco would shrink from a six-hour drive to a 30 minute hyperloop run, Musk has said. In Saudi Arabia, the 10-hour trip between Riyadh and Jeddah would take 76 minutes, says Virgin Hyperloop One and others that put together a feasibility study.
Critics note that the system still needs to meet a range of safety standards, especially considering its potential speed, and in some countries would run into complex right-of-way land issues when trying to secure locations for the above- or below-ground tubes.
Virgin Hyperloop One was among the quickest companies out of the gate, due in part to its co-founder, Shervin Pishevar, getting a green light directly from his friend Musk.
Pishevar left the company in early December amid accusations of sexual harassment, which he denied.
The company has managed to forge ahead despite the negative publicity, in part due to a $50 million investment by Branson, who after Pishevar’s departure became chairman.
Other companies exist in the alt-transportation space — including Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Aurora, started by former Virgin Hyperloop One executives — but most have peeled off to focus on slight reinventions of the same general concept.
Most recently, Musk suggested he might get involved, focusing not on moving freight but commuters. Last month, Musk tweeted out an animation that showed a bus at ground level suddenly descending below ground to a tunnel drilled by his Boring Company.