SXSWorld November 2015


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S X S W. C O M | N O V E M B E R 2 0 1 5 | S X S W o r l d 1 3 s many commuters know, "rapid transit" doesn't always describe the systems it is supposed to refer to, but new transportation innova- tions could soon change that. Elon Musk and Dirk Ahlborn see your future commute in a large capsule pushed through an elevated tube via low-pressure airflow and traveling at more than 700 MPH. The proposed network, known as Hyperloop and currently being developed under the auspices of Ahlborn's company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), is being shopped around the world as an option that would cost less to build than existing systems, be more profitable and be more eco- logically beneficial, while enhancing work productivity and increasing leisure time. In addition, it could be built largely around existing infrastructure. At last month's SXSW Eco 2015, Ahlborn presented a comprehensive argument for the Hyperloop, a five-mile prototype that will soon be under construction in Quay Valley, California, between San Francisco and Los Angeles: "Hyperloop is basically a capsule filled with people that's hovering inside a tube that's moving very, very fast, using alternative energy, like solar." It's guided by an electromagnetic system and creates virtually zero emissions. If that's not compelling enough, Ahlborn poses simple questions for the commuter who relies on automobiles, trains, buses, boats and air- planes: Do you enjoy traffic jams and waiting for the bus or the train or the taxi? Or paying the taxes that go into infrastructure expansions and improvements every year? Ahlborn bets you don't. The key to this could-be revolution, he says, is creating a business model that will draw investors and visionaries, replacing the govern- ment-funded dinosaurs that commuters navigate now. "There have been several efforts (to do something comparable) in the past," Ahlborn says. "I think the main difference is, normally they've been done as govern- ment-funded projects ... But the moment that public transportation becomes a business model, it's going to become more attractive, not only for the investors, but for the decision-makers." That paradigm shift is more likely to take place in Asia, he says, partic- ularly in China, where last month, as Chinese vacationers returned from the country's week-long national holiday, millions of people were stuck for hours on the Beijing-Hong Kong-Macau Expressway, as toll stations shoehorned 50 lanes into 20. In 2010, a Chinese-Mongolian "carpoca- lypse" caused by highway construction and wrecks covered 75 miles and lasted 12 days. To get started, HTT has raised funds through crowd-sourcing instead of private investors or public funding. At present, the California-based company has attracted hundreds of engineers, students, transportation specialists and others. In exchange for their brain power, these contributors will receive stock options, which HTT will generate in its IPO, set for some time in 2016, from which it hopes to raise $500 million. This approach allows a broader section of the population to become vested in a system that Ahlborn argues could revolutionize travel the way rail transport did in the 19th century. In a Hyperloop tube, the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, for instance, would take 35 to 45 minutes, shorter than a flight. Granted, the proposed bullet train between those two cities is already under construction—but its esti- mated cost is $68 billion, while Ahlborn and company expect the same route via Hyperloop to cost $6-7 billion. "I don't know what happens to the existing project—who knows?" Ahlborn said. "But in general, high-speed rail doesn't make sense, because you don't recover the money. If there is an alterna- tive technology that costs less and makes more money, then it makes sense." Asked how long before we could see Hyperloop actually up and running, Ahlborn says, "Once everyone understands the business model behind it, it's going to be here very fast. I think, 10 years from now. Ten years ago, we didn't have Facebook, and 10 years before that, we didn't have cell phones." Plus, he points out, it only took about 10 years to get a man on the moon, once visionaries put their minds to it. But Hyperloop isn't the only proposed solution. Other transportation innovators think electrified and automated vehicle fleets (including self- driving cars) can unsnarl the ecologic and economic problems created by on-road congestion. The Rocky Mountain Institute recently selected Austin, Texas, as its test location for a diverse new approach to moving people more efficiently. RMI's Greg Rucks, who is spearheading the project, says the premise "is that as vehicles are more highly utilized, they are more cost-effective and more attractive, from a business standpoint, to electrify them. What happens with the driverless vehicle is that they can run 24 hours a day; they're not beholden to the schedule of a single driver or a single owner." In this scenario, Rucks says, "the business angle is for fleet operators to electrify their fleets, and for personal mobility to move toward the electric car. People can realize competitive advantages, because they're paying a lower maintenance cost." Though they he may be proposing a different approach, Ahlborn would likely agree with Rucks on this point: "It's crazy how much space we devote to unused passenger vehicles, to parked cars and parking lots... and we're moving toward a paradigm where we're designing cities around people again, rather than around cars." T Is a Transportation Revolution Just Around the Corner? by Shermakaye baSS A D irk A hl b o rn a t SX S W Eco R O B S A N T O S

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