Jay Walder is tired. The Virgin Hyperloop One CEO has been on the road preaching the hyperloop gospel to local communities that one day may end up as a stop on the futuristic transport model’s route. And he’s got props to make the case, hauling along a test pod with him on the road, because the Hyperloop is so futuristic that it’s difficult to comprehend what it will look like and how it will work. (Personally, I keep envisioning it as a cross between a hamster’s Habitrail and a 19th-century library’s pneumatic tube system).
“I often tell people to come to Vegas and see the test facility,” says Walder, who reminds me a bit of the monorail salesman from The Simpsons. “When people are able to come, they say to me that this completely changed their perception of it. Unfortunately, you can’t bring everybody to our test facility. And so we decided to take Hyperloop on the road.”
The Virgin Hyperloop One roadshow offers people a peek at what the future just might look like—and also to dispel myths along the way (like the idea posited in a CNN article that Hyperloop would be injurious to a “frail old lady” who wanted to ride it). The pod wowed the crowds in Ohio, Texas, and Kansas, before being parked at Rockefeller Center in New York City, perfectly timed for eco-conscious folks coming through the city for United Nations Climate Week. If it works, Hyperloop is poised to be the most energy-efficient mode of mass transportation in the world, carrying more people than a subway with zero direct emissions as it whisks commuters across vast stretches of land at speeds faster than any other form of ground transportation outside of the Marvelverse. If all goes as planned, it could transform America, too.
“If you ask somebody in Columbus, Ohio, how far away is Pittsburgh? The answer they should give you is three hours,” says Walder. “So we are measuring distance by time. And implicit in that calculation is the idea that we’re still doing it off the interstate highway system that we created in 1956. But what if instead of saying three hours to go from Columbus to Pittsburgh, you said that it was 28 minutes? And now, all of a sudden, you reimagine your life.”
The picture that Walder paints of a Hyperloop-connected country is pretty compelling. Imagine being able to work in Washington, D.C., or Boston, but living in New York City, a mere 30-minute Hyperloop commute away. Imagine being able to eat a full tasting menu for dinner at Uchi in Austin and be back to your home in Dallas before bedtime or making all those New York Times articles about Philadelphia being the sixth borough of New York City seem feasible (“It would be—if it were, what, 12 minutes away?” Walder, a former New Yorker, asks rhetorically.) Long-distance relationships could be a thing of the past. It is a wonder to think about.
Yet it will be a few years—”years, not decades,” Walder says—before the first hyperloop system will carry passengers across the U.S. Thanks to private funding and an eager local government, their project in India, though, is well underway. “I think we can have shovels in the ground next year,” Walder says about the line, which will eventually stretch from Pune to Mumbai. “The first phase of that project will be the construction of 12 kilometers, about eight miles, and that will be to be able to demonstrate the full system and to go through the safety and regulatory certification in India. And then we’ll construct the rest of the route. But we could be starting construction really by probably the end of next year. It’s very real.” Walder thinks the first phase of that line could be completed by “about 2024” and the first passengers could ride the futuristic rails while they build out the rest, which Walder estimates would take “another four or five years.”
The U.S. may not be far behind, though. Nine states are exploring hyperloop technology: Missouri, Texas, Colorado, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Washington, Indiana, Oregon, and Nevada, which is already the home of Hyperloop’s test site. St. Louis has been buzzing about the possibility of a Hyperloop since Virgin Hyperloop One released a study showing that building a line from Kansas City, Missouri, to St. Louis along Interstate 70 was entirely feasible. An RFP for a line from Fort Worth-to-Dallas is expected to go out in the next few weeks and Walder says they are looking at a route that would connect Vancouver, Canada to Seattle and Portland.
Perhaps more important, the federal government is interested in seeing Hyperloop grow, too. “There are very few things in Washington that I can think of that are actually bipartisan, and bicameral, both houses, both parties, right now,” says Walder. “Hyperloop actually is fitting that category right now. You are actually seeing both parties adopting language that will get money going behind the idea.” Of course, Virgin Hyperloop One isn’t waiting for the federal government to get on board (pun intended!) to begin the long certification and regulatory process and safety checks that go with creating an entirely new mode of transportation. Hence the roadshow, which Walder hopes will drum up support and enthusiasm for a good old-fashioned public-private partnership to get his thing going.
As the states put out their calls for RFPs and start to dream of a connected future, there are safety concerns that will need to be addressed, but Walder believes that will come. “I don’t know how a plane works, but I get on a plane, because we have a trust in the safety process,” he says. “Same with a railway or even in the way that a highway is built. So we will be working with the U.S. DOT around the safety standards and go through the testing.” People want to live in the world that The Jetsons promised us and Walder thinks it’s only a matter of years—not decades—before it becomes a reality. For now, though, Walder is back on the road with his Hyperloop pod, dreaming of the future.