The hyperloop has a ways to go before it can become a reality. But for Los Angeles-based startup Hyperloop One, adding Richard Branson might have elevated its chances--if not internally, then for the rest of the world.
"I believed in this fully from the beginning," Hyperloop One co-founder and chief technology officer Josh Giegel tells Inc. in a conference room above Times Square. "I was already drinking the Kool-Aid, knowing we can build this. But having somebody like Virgin come in and be a partner with us kind of gives that external validation."
Branson first started speaking with Hyperloop One about coming on board back in April, then came out to the Nevada desert the next month to see the rail in action. The startup had several connections to Branson: Giegel briefly worked for Virgin Galactic in 2014; fellow co-founder Shervin Pishevar, a high-profile venture capitalist, was an early reservation holder on Galactic's celebrity-studded list of customers waiting to take a flight into space.
By investing in Hyperloop One and joining the company's board, Branson will turn his attention back to the ground. The entrepreneur's transportation brands are known for extra touches like groovy lighting and free entertainment, which Giegel says aligns well with Hyperloop One's vision for what it wants riding the high-speed rail to be like.
"Our thinking has been, if we're inventing this new thing, let's make it something exciting," he says. The name certainly helps too--the company is now rebranding as Virgin Hyperloop One. "People want to travel on Virgin's things," Giegel says. "We have a system that will have a very strong price point, and now we can do it with a little flair and a little gravitas."
Giegel envisions a boarding process with features like seats that illuminate with a traveler's name and face recognition technology instead of tickets. There would be different categories of travel, with the 40- to 50-person pods devoted to first class, business class, or economy.
Giegel says the concept of "missing" your mode of long-distance travel--be it plane, train, or bus--won't apply to the hyperloop. Instead, it will operate more like a subway, with pods running every few minutes. "You wouldn't miss your pod," he says. "You would just get on the next one."
The hyperloop's pods aim to zoom along in vacuum-sealed tubes at around 700 mph. The company hopes to reduce trips that normally take four or five hours by car to around 30 minutes. But won't accelerating to 700 mph make people sick? Giegel says no, since the gravitational force will be about the same as in an airplane at takeoff. Overall, he says, the ride will be smoother, since there's no turbulence to worry about.
"If New York to Washington, D.C., were a 30-minute ride," he says, "but those 30 minutes were full-on jostling, and at the end it felt like you just went 10 rounds with Manny Pacquiao, I don't think many people would ride it. The system has to be comfortable."
It also has to be safe, which Giegel says it will be, long before any humans can ride it. The bigger issue, he seems to think, is communicating that safety to potential customers. That involves careful decisions on design factors both large and small. For the exterior, the company is creating an "approachable" design that isn't too tech-heavy--think Google's early self-driving cars, which he describes as "cute."
Other decisions will be more subtle, like whether to include seat belts. "If there's no seatbelt, does that make the customer think it's dangerous? Or does the lack of a seat belt imply that it's actually so safe you don't need one?"
But first the company has major hurdles to clear, like completing the design of its airlock system, which helps make the tube nearly frictionless. It also doesn't yet have full government sign-off for any route, though several locations are performing their own feasibility studies. Hyperloop One has narrowed its potential locations for the first route down to 10, four of which are in the United States. Giegel expects that premiere location to be chosen within six months.
The company also has competition from companies like Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, as well as from Elon Musk, who first proposed the system four years ago and recently decided to give it a go himself. While Musk has been focusing on a subterranean system, Hyperloop One doesn't see more than 10 to 20 percent of any given route running below ground. "It's more expensive and slower to build," Giegel says. The advantage of the hyperloop, he adds, is that its going around, say, a mountain--instead of through it--will only add a few minutes to the trip's time.
Plus, operating below ground would rob passengers of the ability to watch the landscape whiz by at nearly the speed of sound. The rail's mostly steel tubes, Giegel says, will have slits cut into them, giving the rider inside a flipbook-like impression of the outside world.
"We can't roll out something that looks like the first plane or the first car," he says. "We're creating a passenger experience."