Thirty years ago, the idea of driverless cars was science fiction. But that didn’t stop innovators from working toward that goal, and while society may not be quite there yet, it’s pretty close. The same can be said for other forms of transportation. Hyperloop seems like a futuristic invention, but it’s not. Seventy years ago, films depicted the concept of moving people through tubes, but the idea actually goes back further. In 1799, an inventor named George Medhurst designed a concept that would “move goods through cast-iron pipes using air pressure,” according to research conducted by Business Insider.
Hyperloop is just one of the technologies that is looking to change the way goods and people move over the next 30 years. Anita Sengupta, senior vice president of systems engineering for Virgin Hyperloop One, told the story of how that company’s hyperloop technology originated and how close it is becoming a reality. She was joined by Jon Rimanelli, founder & CEO of AirSpaceX and Marc Van Peteghem, founder of VPLP Design, on a panel discussion last week on the future of mobility at the Movin’On by Michelin Global Summit on sustainable mobility in Montreal.
While Virgin Hyperloop has received a lot of global press for its efforts to advance hyperloop technology, Sengupta, a rocket scientist who used to work for NASA, explained that the basic concept is to move people and goods faster – in essence, to “change the space-time continuum.”
A 100% electric solution, hyperloop propels a pod through a vacuum tube that provides no resistance at speeds up to 620 mph. The pod is magnetically levitated above a track. The vacuum eliminates the air resistance which enables the fast speeds. Each Virgin Hyperloop One pod can carry between 8 and 12 people.
“Transportation revolutions have happened over time, but we haven’t had a new mode of transportation in over 100 years,” Sengupta said, believing that hyperloop is that new mode.
The company, founded 4 years ago, now employs 220 people and has both a test facility and manufacturing facility – it makes all its own components – in Las Vegas. Over the next 12 to 18 months, the company expects to extend its current test track to allow for higher speed testing and believes that hyperloop could connect 80% of the U.S. population in under 5 hours.
“We believe that if municipalities choose to use this kind of solution, it can be developed in the next few years,” Sengupta said.
Rimanelli doesn’t see the future of transportation in tubes, but rather in the air. Stating that he believes in 20 years between 30% and 40% of the population will travel by air, he set out to develop a solution. Called Mobi-One, AirSpaceX’s vision of future mobility is a small aircraft. Designed to carry people or cargo with payloads up to 1,100 pounds, the fully electric aircraft is what is called an EVTOL (electric vehicle takeoff and landing). The craft takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like a plane once airborne.
“We’ve been doing the math on this for the last 8 years,” Rimanelli said. According to the inventor, who said the company showed the aircraft to Uber two weeks ago (Uber is looking to develop Uber Air to move passengers via small craft), a flight from San Francisco to San Jose could take just 15 minutes and cost roughly the same as an UberX for the trip, which would take 1 hour and 40 minutes.
Rimanelli believes his solution is the correct approach because it takes advantage of the nearly 20,000 airports in the U.S. Most of those airports, though, see little traffic and congestion, as 99% of the U.S. population travels through one of the top 100 airports.
“We have all this available infrastructure but no way to improve the life of the [traveler],” he explained.
The craft will be automated, he added, and utilizes many of the same autonomous technologies and manufacturing techniques already available in the automotive space.
Developing this kind of technology, though, can draw its share of critics, Rimanelli noted. “For a long time, people were pretty much convinced I was out of my mind,” he said. “As someone who has been developing technology for 5 years [in the future], I have to have a crystal ball, but it’s really the ability to show them” the technology works and is safe that gets buy-in.
Rimanelli hopes to have demonstrations ongoing of the Mobi-One by 2020 with mass production by 2023 or early 2024.
Peteghem’s company, VPLP, actually takes its cue from the way goods moved 4,000 years ago – wind power. The founder noted that the International Maritime Organization has set a 50% reduction from 2012 levels in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but Peteghem believes more can be done.
“Do you think it’s a big step?” he asked the audience. “I think we should be far more ambitious.
“For more than 4,000 years, sailors used the wind,” he added. “It was only 150 years ago we ditched the wind for oil. I think it is time to get back to the wind.”
VPLP’s WingSail technology takes a traditional sail and creates a furlable, automated system that can be raised and lowered. Each sail includes two “elements” or sails, as part of the package and the technology allows a single WindSail to generate twice as much wind power of a traditional sail.
Peteghem believes the technology is capable of powering cargo ships. Before critics dismiss the idea of using wind to effectively move goods across vast oceans, it’s worth noting some of Peteghem’s credentials. VPLP is not some startup up company entering the space, it is actually a 35-year-old French-based naval architectural firm founded by Peteghem and Vincent Lauriot-Prévost. Its history shows that is has designed some of the world’s most innovative racing boats and company designs have been breaking world speed sailing records for years.
It remains to be seen if any of these technologies – or some unknown technology - come to fruition, but they all have the ability to significantly disrupt freight transport, if we can just get past the “never-going-to-happen-in-my-lifetime” mentality that permeates society.