Editor's letter: Josh Giegel on creating a transport system for the 21st century

Josh Giegel, Virgin Hyperloop One co-founder and CTO, takes the reins as Guest Editor for our Smarter Travel Spotlight series. Here Josh explains how hyperloop technology is in a unique position to meet the diverse needs of modern society.

I quit my job at a premier spaceflight company near the end of 2014 on a mission that potential investors tried to talk me out of, "you’re young, you can do anything, this is a waste of time..." I knew all I needed was to was find a team of people just as committed as I was - we would do something nobody thought possible.

In 2014, hyperloop was an idea drawn on a whiteboard in a garage. A little over two years later, we built a full-scale prototype and I was giving a tour to none other than my former boss, Richard Branson, at our Nevada test site. He quizzed me about my choice to leave Virgin Galactic. "So you left the most exciting company in the world?...Well, if you were going to leave, this is probably as good a reason as any."

Richard and I discussed how proving the naysayers wrong is fun, but it’s the why that matters - and the when. There are too many people who are caught in soul-crushing traffic, who have to make a hard choice with their family on where to live and work, and who are limited in their access to experiences and opportunities. It’s our mission to build a system that will give back some of that time and deliver the travel experience of the future. We’re not looking to build something decades from now, we’re talking years.

The need for transportation infrastructure spend is enormous - more than $1.4 trillion annually by 2020. We are going to need all options - innovative and traditional - on the table to meet the demands of the coming decades.

Quiz: How much do you know about Hyperloop?

Every day I read headlines like this one and I ask myself, “am I still changing the world the way I want to?“ Yes. The number of cars is set to double worldwide by 2040, same with air and trucking. We are already dealing with the effects of pollution, lack of access, and congestion. If we only invest in the same technologies we’ve had for more than a century, tomorrow will look like today only much worse.

Doomsday scenarios can be paralysing. However, the future is not just an evolution of the present. It’s an opportunity to merge different ideas and information to create something completely revolutionary. We see an enormous opportunity to work with local governments and other innovative companies to help provide mobility as an integrated service.

Our Virgin Hyperloop One system is a new solution that is direct, on-demand, autonomous, and connects all forms of transportation. It is highly efficient to operate, 100 per cent electric, and has zero direct emissions. We can potentially create our own self-contained microgrid, powering the system by solar panels that cover the tube or on margin land. Hyperloop systems can be built on columns or tunneled below ground to avoid dangerous at-grade crossings and wildlife - and there’s minimal noise. We’re designing our system to deliver airline speeds, with the same tolerable G forces as any rail system and the ease of riding a metro. Hyperloop will be kid and grandma friendly and vomit-free.

We first proved this technology in May of 2017, when we successfully operated our full-scale hyperloop vehicle using electric propulsion and electromagnetic levitation under near-vacuum conditions. We’ve since run hundreds of tests, acquiring knowledge that only comes from real-world testing and validating the ideas you had in the lab. Now we are working with visionary governments and world class partners around the world to make hyperloop a commercial reality. We are set to break ground next year on the Mumbai to Pune hyperloop project which will slash journey times down to 25 minutes and connect 26 million people within a thriving, competitive megaregion. In just one year of operation, the system could save an estimated 90 million hours of travel time and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 150,000 tonnes.

Read: Virgin Atlantic flies the first ever commercial flight using LanzaTech’s sustainable jet fuel

How are we able to deliver this technology in such a short period of time? It reminds me of one of my favourite Einstein quotes, "The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education." It is no coincidence that our Test and Development hub sits right next to where cross-disciplinary design engineers are housed, separated only by a kitchen where employees from across the company mingle everyday for lunch. Some of our best ideas have come from late night whiteboard sessions, where we put our "team building" refrigerator to good use. The recognition that the builders and the tradesmen are just as important as the engineers, and that an aerospace engineer could perhaps have an unconventional civil infrastructure solution is what allowed us to rapidly and creatively integrate our solution.

The dream of most engineers is to build something that no one has ever built before, something inspiring and something that will be here long after we aren’t. The goal is daunting, the challenge humbling but the reward of success is worth the sacrifice. We’re not building something just for us but for our children’s children. We owe them a future they deserve just like we live in the world as the Wright brothers envisioned over 100 years ago. We’re overdue for a seismic shift in transportation and hyperloop can be it.

Roman roads, Spanish ships, the steam engine, the railroad, the internet - all spurred unprecedented economic growth. Those have led us inexorably here - to the fourth industrial revolution. What you notice about each of those is that they are a form of connection - whether digital or physical - each one a higher speed improvement over the last. The future demands that we build a physical connection to meet our ever growing needs - Hyperloop is the 21st century solution to the 21st century need for high-speed connection. Making travel fast, efficient, safe, effortless - it’s perhaps the greatest use of time, and creation of time, on earth. That’s why we spend ours creating it.

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