Hyperloop wars: Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the limelight

(Photo: Pexels)

Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One has raised the curtain on its new venture into the Middle East, proposing a cargo Hyperloop project in Dubai backed by Dubai Ports. Hyperloop is an ambitious futuristic transportation technology envisioned by Elon Musk in 2013, which involves transporting pods at speeds touching 750 miles per hour through a vacuum tube.

The Branson venture is called the DP World Cargospeed, and as the CEO of DP World Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem has promised, the hyperloop would deliver freight at “airspeed at the price of transport by land,” making it a tempting prospect for the future of transport.

Dubai is an ideal place to kickstart a hyperloop project, as the emirate is known to have pushed boundaries in construction for decades. A city which now holds some of the most remarkable man-made constructions like the Palm Jumeirah and the Burj Khalifa, was once a fishing village in the 1960s. Smart investment and a telescopic approach to city building has made it one of the most important centers for commerce in the Middle East.

Virgin Hyperloop One is planning to connect Dubai’s Jebel Ali port – the largest man-made harbor and the world’s ninth busiest port – with interior regions of the UAE. The details of the routes are still under wraps, which is expected to be announced soon along with the timeline for construction. That being said, the initial construction would be truncated versions of the intended final routes as the technology to build a full-fledged hyperloop network is still under development. Though hyperloop has a theoretical capacity of propelling pods at 750 mph, the highest achieved speed till date is 240 mph, which is a third of what is mentioned on paper.

But Branson is optimistic about the potential of hyperloop and has said that he would want to see his company’s hyperloop system get operational in the next two or three years. Virgin Hyperloop One is also targeting India, a route between Mumbai to Pune that is supposed to be its first exclusive passenger line. This is a strategically wise move, as Mumbai being a hyper-politan city with over 22 million people, overflows with people on its sub-urban trains, while its densely clogged roads make transportation a tedious affair. Introducing hyperloop in the city would be a game-changer for both people and freight transport.

The Dubai route which would be the first one to be completed, is expected to be primarily be used as a cargo transportation line, but it could also be used to carry passengers during peak hours while switching to freight in the off-hours.

UAE being a cash-strapped country with an ambitious government at its helm, it comes as no surprise that Virgin Hyperloop One is facing a competitor in the form of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. HTT has recently announced its plans of building a route in association with Aldar Properties in Abu Dhabi, a 100 miles down south of Dubai. Notably, HTT has initiated construction of a full-scale prototype system in Toulouse, France last month.

HTT is developing its hyperloop in Aldar’s Seih Al Sdeirah landbank in Abu Dhabi and would later look to link Dubai and Abu Dhabi, though the technology to connect the two emirates is still under development. “In the future, we would be happy to expand this, but there is nothing concrete happening right now between the two emirates,” said Bibop Gresta, the chairman of HTT.

The terrain of Dubai and Abu Dhabi also plays a role in it being preferred. The rocky eastern part of UAE gives way to sandy plains to its west, providing the cities a relatively easy topography to dig through for constructing hyperloop tunnels. The area also does well seismically, with the occurrence of earthquakes nearly a non-issue. And since both the cities have large ports and are bustling commercial destinations, the dawning of a hyperloop system was inevitable. As with the technology itself, it remains to be seen if it stands true to its potential and if it does, it sure would change the landscape of freight movement for good.

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Vishnu Rajamanickam, Staff Writer

Vishnu writes editorial commentary on cutting-edge technology within the freight industry, profiles startups, and brings in perspective from industry frontrunners and thought leaders in the freight space. In his spare time, he writes neo-noir poetry, blogs about travel & living, and loves to debate about international politics. He hopes to settle down in a village and grow his own food at some point in time. But for now, he is happy to live with his wife in the middle of a German metropolitan.