WASHINGTON — Rob Lloyd would like to get you from Los Angeles to San Diego in 12.5 minutes – without getting in a car or a plane. Or how about Denver to Dallas in 73 minutes? Or Pittsburgh to Columbus in 18 minutes?
Hyperloop One, the Los Angeles-based startup that Lloyd runs, on Thursday named 11 U.S. semi-finalists to compete for the chance to build the innovative transportation system first envisioned in a 2013 white paper written by Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
One of a number of companies pursuing the commercialization of this ambitious and largely untested technology, Hyperloop One will consider the U.S. proposals along with 24 others from around the world. In early 2018, Hyperloop One will help three winners get financing and build their systems.
The winning group would also determine where the world would see the first commercial hyperloop — whether it's Miami to Orlando or Reno to Las Vegas. The teams are typically made up of government, former government and industry officials.
“We don’t know which one of those wasn’t a great idea," Lloyd told a gathering of dozens of government and industry experts at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. “These are all good projects."
Hyperloop One's plan is to transport people and cargo suspended in pods by magnetic levitation inside vacuum-sealed tubes, and to travel at nearly the speed the sound across long distances. Think of an old pneumatic tube for bank deposits, except for people.
Other startups pursuing the venture include Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and TransPod, as well as dozens of amateur and university-based teams that recently competed at the SpaceX-sponsored Hyperloop Pod Competition.
Hyperloop proponents argue that the futuristic form of movement will not only give passengers back time, but also provide companies with cheaper and faster ways to shuttle their goods between destinations. Critics counter that while magnetic levitation technology certainly has proven itself on some of the fastest trains in Europe and Asia, U.S. voters and lawmakers have shown little appetite for supporting high-speed rail of any sort.
Hyperloop One was among the first companies to commit itself to seeing if the technology could be commercialized. Founded in 2014 by early Uber investor Shervin Pishevar and ex-SpaceX engineer Brogan BamBrogan, the company tested its propulsion system with great fanfare last spring when it sent a sled down tracks for 100 yards at a test facility an hour outside of Las Vegas.
Pishevar and BamBrogan quickly announced that Hyperloop One would begin building a long, connected track that would host a true test of hyperloop tech by the end of 2016.
But a strange series of events got in the way of that deadline. The company's chief technology officer BamBrogan abruptly quit and sued Hyperloop One last July, alleging that he was harassed by officials when he brought some internal concerns to light. Hyperloop One countered the BamBrogan was making off with company secrets as well as planning to poach talent for his own hyperloop venture.
In November, the warring parties settled the suit. In January, BamBrogan announced he and his former Hyperloop One colleagues were launching their own company, Arrivo.
Pishevar, Hyperloop One's executive chairman, said Thursday his company is focused on the next step: testing on a longer track. It's has completed a 500 meter tube at its Nevada site that is 11 feet wide, and plans to test the propulsion, pod and sealed tube as a full-scale system – with no people aboard – in June or July.
“I think that is a critical milestone,” said Pishevar. “It’s just the next generation of high-speed rail, except cheaper and faster.”
Hyperloop One has been working with partners in northern Europe, Scandinavia and in Dubai.
“It’s going to be a competition to see which government in the world wants to be the first to bring hyperloop to their citizens and their country,” Pishevar said. “There is obviously a lot of interest around the world.”
Anthony Foxx, the former secretary of transportation who had to develop regulations for drones and autonomous cars, drew a parallel for hyperloop with the need for regulators to work with industry to develop safety rules as the technology evolves. Foxx suggested transporting freight initially and then transitioning to passengers.
“Pick a place and build it, so people can see it,” Foxx said in a panel discussion about the technology. “It’s going to take a lot of cooperation.”
Lloyd said if regulators are adversarial, the project won’t work, so Hyperloop One will look for cooperative regulators.
As the company perfects its engineering, it is also whittling down 2,600 applicants worldwide that want to build the system. The 35 semi-finalists are being named at events in India, in Washington, D.C. and next in Amsterdam.
“We’ve got to place some very smart bets,” Lloyd said. “We want to build projects that will be finished, that have support and where people are cheering us on and not trying to prevent us from succeeding.”
The U.S. semi-finalists, with some overlap, cover routes from Los Angeles to San Diego; Seattle to Eugene, Ore.; Reno to Las Vegas; Cheyenne, Wyo., to Houston; Kansas City to St. Louis; Pittsburgh to Chicago; Boston to Providence, R.I.; and Miami to Orlando.
That last route is promising because it’s flat and has right-of-way available from one of the country’s biggest ports to one of the most popular tourist destinations. But Florida rejected $2.4 billion in federal funding in 2011 for high-speed rail along a similar route because of concerns about how much it would cost to operate the system after it was built.
Hyperloop will gauge whether local governments, state officials and federal officials support each project, Lloyd said.
While they idea of cutting hours off a commute in podlike travel has captured the public's imagination, hyperloop technology is most likely to be employed first as a glorified — but very fast — freight train. Tracy Hughes, who worked on the Rocky Mountain Consortium proposal for a route from Cheyenne through Denver and Dallas to Houston, said it would pass near 22 military bases and serve one of the country’s largest ports.
“We believe cargo will come before people,” Hughes said.
Another member of her team, David Clute, said the proposal envisions travelers choosing the hyperloop to avoid traffic along the highways.
“You can’t pave your way out of congestion,” he said.
Hyperloop One has grown to 250 workers and expects to reach 500 by end of the year. The executives are optimistic about the project catching on.
“Once you show that this works, things will get moving a bit faster,” Pishevar said. “There are moments in history when something is so advantageous and cost-efficient that things change.”
Contributing: Marco della Cava in San Francisco