Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is working on making Elon Musk’s Hyperloop dream a reality.  Through the ‘Innovation Train’ project, it is sharing some of its other innovative ideas with Deutsche Bahn. Rod James takes a look.

Arguably no-one in the tech industry is revered quite as much as Elon Musk. In an April 2015 interview at a TED conference, the interviewer, bowled over by the South African’s space exploration project SpaceX, asks him, “How on earth has one person been able to innovate in this way? What is it about you?” While rather obsequious in tone, the question is a fair one.

It’s hard to think of anyone who has done so much in such diverse disciplines, from slashing the cost of payments through PayPal to demonstrating through Tesla that electric cars can be fast and stylish as well as clean. But even Musk, who reportedly works 100-hour weeks, doesn’t have time to act on every big idea that enters his head.

In 2012, Musk started to talk about a new form of transport based on the principal of sending a vehicle at high-speed through an evacuated tube. Though similar ideas have been around for more than 100 years, none have come close to realisation. This mode of transport would, he said, be able to operate in all weathers, without risk of collision, consume minimal power, travel at twice the speed of a plane and be able to store enough energy for 24-hour operations – a high bar, by all accounts. He chose the name Hyperloop, due to the tube’s proposed loop shape, and compared it to a “cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table”.

“Preoccupied by Tesla and SpaceX, Musk effectively threw open the challenge to the scientific community.”

Preoccupied by Tesla and SpaceX, Musk effectively threw open the challenge to the scientific community and two companies have risen to the top: Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT). The two companies are different in structure and character. Hyperloop One is more of a typical start-up, which derives its funding mainly from venture capital funds. HTT, on the other hand, uses crowdsourcing to glean the expertise of more than 500 volunteer engineers and technologists, each remotely contributing around ten hours of their time a week.

Deutsche to dabble in Hyperloop magic

While potentially very exciting, all of this is largely irrelevant to the railway and other transportation industries, at least for the time being. HTT has yet to demonstrate its Hyperloop technology and the first test carried out by Hyperloop One, in May, saw an early model (with no brakes) get to just 116mph. However, a recent partnership between HTT and Deutsche Bahn, the largest railway company in the world by revenue, at least shows how high-tech ideas and modes of working might translate.

The project in question is called Innovation Train, a conventional train featuring new technology developed by HTT to “bring a modern digital presence to today’s train transportation”. This does not include the Hyperloop technology itself, rather supplementary technologies developed by the company’s big community of volunteer engineers. Deutsche Bahn is funding the project.

The two concepts announced so far are based around train windows and derive from research and development carried out by Munich-based technologists RE’FLEKT, whose employees are important contributors to HTT’s knowledge pool. The first augmented windows, display information on top of the scenery. This could be anything from the outside temperature and the speed of the train to what major events are going on at the destination.

Then there are virtual windows, which are not only capable of displaying such information but completely replace the view with a new, imagined landscape. This was designed out of necessity – there are no windows on the Hyperloop so passengers need something to look at – but could play a useful role on the railways.

“It’s a screen technology that uses head-tracking to see where you are looking,” says HTT CEO Dirk Ahlborn. “And based on where you are looking we are moving the image so it actually looks like you are looking out of a window. Imagine a metro in between the stops. Now you can go through Jurassic World or Terminator Land and look outside of the window. For you it’s an experience, but for the transportation company it’s actually a possibility to make money. We are creating experience content, a completely new business model.”

A window onto new areas of revenue generation

The money comes from allowing advertisers to place their logos and products within these virtual worlds or even to create the world themselves. As Ahlborn alludes, if a big film studio has a new film out, perhaps they could create one of these virtual worlds and use it as a form of advertising? The money generated by this will help the train company sustain its own operations and, if eventually used on a real, working Hyperloop, help HTT fund itself.

“One of the biggest issues in public transportation is the need for public subsidies.”

“One of the biggest issues in public transportation is the need for public subsidies,” says Ahlborn. “New technologies and new ideas, can create a better passenger experience while solving these issues through new monetisation strategies and business models, with the Hyperloop and all other forms of transportation.”

The project, which was officially unveiled at InnoTrans in Berlin this September, will go through the research, usage scenario, design concept and design finalisation phases before scheduled implementation at the beginning of 2017. A big challenge, Ahlborn says, is modifying the head-tracking technology so that more than one person can look out a window at the same time.

The fact that seemingly simple features like this can be so complicated makes one sceptical about the full Hyperloop experience. Hyperloop One and HTT are using different technologies. The former plans to propel the vehicle through a tube on an air cushion, the latter through passive magnetic levitation, although little detail has been given on how these principles might be successfully applied. This is not withstanding the expense of construction, negotiating and buying up land, and how hard it is likely to be to find volunteers willing to be propelled at supersonic speed in a windowless vehicle through a tube. Even if it doesn’t crash, it’s likely to be rather hard on the stomach.

“The proposed accelerations for the Hyperloop [based on Musk’s original white paper] are a factor of seven greater than the Shinkansen in Japan allow for concerning human passengers, as humans can only handle about 0.2g’s of acceleration in the up-and-down or side-to-side directions,” writes astrophysicist Ethan Siegel, in Forbes. “More than that? You’re virtually guaranteed a trip to phoning the porcelain god.”

Despite this, as far as Deutsche Bahn is concerned, if all that comes out of the Hyperloop dream is enhanced digital technology and a few new ways of generating revenue then such collaborations are surely worthwhile.