By Kevin Caners
- 9 minute read
Scientific hypotheses are often rendered in a “perfect universe.” The world we know started in thought experiments and idealized models. Ideals like the “frictionless surface” allowed Newton to lay the groundwork for modern physics. But he never imagined that reality could live up to them.
If Newton saw how his principles eventually enabled trains, cars, and airplanes – moving faster, going farther – he may have projected his wonder out and, like many, dreamed that the 21st century would usher in unknowable space-age technologies. But here we are. Still no flying cars. Still no hoverboards. Transportation has not fundamentally changed in a century.
From the cost of trains, and the carbon pollution of planes, to the cacophony of traffic in any major city, when it comes to transportation, our universe is far from perfect. But recently there’s been a growing promise that transportation might finally get a little more 21st century, thanks to a developing technology called Hyperloop.
Hyperloop is most intuitively compared to a high-speed train, but it uniquely overcomes the fundamental obstacle that plagues all transportation methods: friction. Friction, in the form of rolling friction, is why we can’t glide effortlessly on bikes forever without eventually falling over. In the form of wind resistance, it’s why airplanes must constantly guzzle noxious fossil fuel, and why most high speed train travel is limited to around 300 km/h.
Still in development, hyperloop pods will travel in a tunnel that has been almost entirely evacuated of air. Instead of rolling on top of tracks, they will levitate just above them. With wind and rolling resistance gone, a pod carrying people or cargo could be rapidly accelerated up to speeds of 1,200 km/h. It can glide like an air-hockey puck until it reaches its destination. Hyperloop brings frictionless travel out of thought experiments and into reality.
Although the idea in some form has roots going back for a century, it‘s public credibility was boosted a few years ago when Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, published an open paper outlining his vision of the concept and encouraged others to build on it. The idea quickly gathered momentum and saw several companies pop up to pursue it further.
Time to get Real
One of those companies was Hyperloop One, later Virgin Hyperloop One. While some Hyperloop companies started their efforts by going straight to governments to negotiate proposed routes, Virgin Hyperloop One took a more pragmatic engineering approach. “They first wanted to verify that this concept can actually work,” says DK&A’s Ville Kolehmainen. “That you can actually have a train-like pod travel in a vacuum tube and you can actually reach these insane speeds of over a thousand kilometers per hour.”
After preliminary research, the Los Angeles based company took their efforts to the Nevada desert. “They built this test track, about 500 meters long,” says Ville, “to prove the concept.” After all there was a lot to test. Everything from the tube design capable of securely maintaining a vacuum, to the propulsion and levitation systems, all had to be shown to work effectively and in tandem.
In May 2017, Virgin Hyperloop One had their first full test trial and it was a major success. They were able to accelerate their prototype sled to speeds of over 300 km/h in just 300 meters before braking. In other words “they verified that, given a longer track, they could safely reach incredible speeds,” says Ville.
Telling the World
Virgin Hyperloop One had proven itself and Hyperloop technology. They were seen by many Hyperloop observers as leading the technology. But because they had worked in secret, most people were unaware of their successes.
That’s when they got in touch with DK&A. “They had been quite hush-hush up to this point, so they needed to have a coming out of sorts,” says Ville. In other words, it was time for them to convince investors, governments, and the public at large that Hyperloop was real, it deserved investment and excitement, and that Virgin Hyperloop One was the one to deliver it. The company wanted DK&A’s help with that challenge.
But how do you make a vision of the future appear real today? With all the hype around Hyperloop, it seemed to some too good to be true. “You have to remember that at this time nobody had actually seen anything concrete or tangible related to the Hyperloop mode of travel,” says Ville. “And that’s where we started our cooperation. We were going to help them show the public that something was actually happening. And the question was ‘how do we come out in a way that would not make Hyperloop look like complete Sci-Fi?’”
While Virgin Hyperloop One didn’t know how they would unveil their technology, they did know where it needed to happen: the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), one of the largest and most prestigious showcases of new products and technologies in the world. CES takes place each January in Las Vegas, and features thousands of exhibiting companies, and over 175,000 attendees. Virgin Hyperloop One had recently struck a strategic partnership with the global mapping company HERE, and it was decided that together they would share a booth at the CES.
Right Around the Corner
By the time Virgin Hyperloop One had contacted DK&A, CES was only seven weeks away — a tiny timeline to pull off something big. They needed a plan, and quick. “At first, there was an idea that the hyperloop car would be outside the booth and people could actually go see it and touch it and what not,” Ville remembers. “But because of shear time and practicalities, that idea was quickly let go.”
That’s when DK&A had what turned out to be a key meeting with the Virgin Hyperloop One team. “We asked them a very simple question which turned out to be pivotal,” remembers Ville. “We asked them: ‘Do you want the perception that this is something futuristic, and maybe 10 years away? Or do you want the perception that this whole thing is right around the corner?’”
The question almost answered itself. “It kind of clicked right then and there,” says Ville. “Like everybody realized, ‘Aha, this is a really good way to word this.’ We want the public to feel that Hyperloop is right around the corner.” Once they knew that, “we very quickly figured out that an app was the way to go.”
It was decided that a Virgin Hyperloop One app would be demoed at CES, and the app would give a realistic vision of what it would be like if there were already a hyperloop connecting downtown Las Vegas to Los Angeles.
Typically the trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles takes about 5 hours by car. A flight, factoring in security, check-in, and time to and from the airports, is not that much better. With the proposed hyperloop track, the trip would only take 30 minutes. As Ville puts it, “that’s where you get the power of this technology. Its potential to vastly increase the scope of what you can access. It shrinks geography.”
With the app they wanted to bring that service to life. They imagined the app’s user as an attendee at CES. As Ville put it, being at CES is pretty wild. “You’re in the middle of this crowded chaos of 175,000 people and also in a high energy city. Maybe they want to get out of this chaos, and do something else for a bit.” Hyperloop would make it possible to go from Las Vegas to LA for even a short visit.
“We decided we wanted users to be able to plug their wishes straight into the app,” Ville says. “I want to go to LA to relax for an afternoon and evening. And I need to be back by 11:00 PM in Las Vegas, what can I do in LA?” So they came up with all sorts of scenarios, potential things people could do in LA to relax for several hours.
“We ended up mapping out very detailed journeys for these different cases.”The app would do more than just book a hyperloop ticket, it would make whole packages available. “Let’s say that this guy wants to go on a business dinner with somebody that they’ve just met at CES and we know that there’s this hot, new restaurant in Los Angeles. What we could do is offer them a one click booking option within the app to book their hyperloop ticket and also reserve the table.”
Or for the sports fan: “The app’s content discovery engine would tell you ‘hey, there’s a Lakers home game tonight. We can take you there, and we promise to bring you back by 11:00 PM for a good night’s sleep.’” Whether it was a restaurant reservation, or tickets to a game or a concert, app users could book the entire trip with one touch.
They also designed the app “so that it would feel really familiar, and you would instantly know how to use it,” Ville says. Partnering with HERE allowed them to make the app incredibly realistic, as it gave them access to a wealth of real location and mapping data. That data allowed them to create a truly multimodal transport app, in which Hyperloop was only one type of transportation among others. That meant whether it was with an e-bike, or walking, or a getting a Lyft, the app could truly guide your journey door to door. As for the Lakers game scenario, “The App would guide you from the hyperloop station, to the Staples Center, and even with indoor navigation, right to your actual seat.”
I asked Ville what stood out most to him about the experience. “The crazy thing here is that we decided very early on that we’re actually going to do a real app rather than, simply making a user experience mock up or a video showing how an app would work. The app worked completely. “The only thing missing was the hyperloop track,” says Ville. “Besides that functionality-wise it was a completely real thing.”
Many of us have become inured to start-up fairy tales of the rapid development of apps that “just work,” but having made that happen himself, Ville insisted that delivering a fully functional consumer application within just a few weeks is no small task. “Well, turns out that it’s pretty crazy, especially if you don’t have a brief to get started with,” i.e. an exact outline from the client company of what they want the app to look and feel like and how it will function. “You actually have to do the whole approach and concept and design, as well as create it. In that sense, it’s pretty nuts.”
Trust, Creative Freedom, and Working Fast
Ville considered trust to be key to DK&A’s collaboration with Virgin Hyperloop One. “Essentially they gave us full creative freedom. They trusted us to do something cool. And that’s, of course, essential when you don’t have too much time to go back and forth. That enabled us to work fast.”
While Ville considered the timeframe tight, he wasn’t worried, “We also had a lot of faith in our own ability to actually execute on this thing,” Ville says. Not to say there weren’t some really long days involved, “We did punch in a few 14-15 hour days,” remembers Ville. But in the end, the team got it done, and were proud of what they had accomplished.
Ville and his colleague, Florian Plank, went to Las Vegas to see and assist with the app being demoed at CES 2018. And there was one rewarding moment that stuck out to Ville in particular, “Florian and I were back at our Hotel. I think it was early evening one day that we were doing some work with the TV on and we saw someone we knew. We suddenly realized, ‘Hey, that’s Rob. That’s the Hyperloop One CEO!’” Prominently in the background, on a big screen, was a video of the app running. “And it was this incredible moment for us, since we realized those are our designs. That’s actually our app. And they were talking about hyperloop as a mode of transport and the whole solution, live on TV.”
And that wasn’t the only case. “It very quickly went really big in the media,” remembers Ville. “Like everybody covered it. You had all your Engadgets and Tech Crunches as well as your CNBCs and so on. Matt Jones, the head of Software Engineering at Virgin Hyperloop One later said that they had like a half a billion visits to their own content, like blog articles on their website. So I think it was a major success. And I’m really proud that we were able to do this little project, which attracted so much attention.”
But the promise of hyperloop did not hit home for Ville until it occurred to him how the technology could reshape his own life. Ville described an inconvenience of living and working in Helsinki, “My dear friend and DK&A colleague Florian, who runs our German operations, lives in Berlin. He also happens to be the godfather to one of my children. So we’re very close family friends. And what I realized is that if there were a hyperloop linking Helsinki to Berlin, which are maybe 2,000 kilometers apart, it would only take 45 minutes or so to travel between the two city-centers. That means I could just take my family, hop on a hyperloop and go to Berlin for an afternoon play-date with our kids. We could let our kids play together while my wife and I enjoy a coffee or a beer with Florian and his wife and after a few hours we could come back and it still wouldn’t be too late for the kids to go to bed.”
Scientific accomplishment comes in the form of data, statistics, numbers, abstractions of abstractions of abstractions. But Ville realizes that a person could not process this information. For us, the only significant figures come at the end of our day, when profits and losses are over and done, when our children have been weighed and graded, and our kilometers per hour get a minute to slow down. When maybe we can take a break from a world of friction and coast for a while. All of our effort and invention is only intended for one perfect universe: our families and friends.
“That was the moment I realized the value of Hyperloop,” remembers Ville. “And that’s when I started getting pretty emotional. Hyperloop could expand our everyday horizons. If you can travel distances like this in an economically practical and ecologically sensible way, then we’re really talking about something that can change the world.”