State on fast track for test run

L.A. com­pany, CDOT part­ners in fu­tur­is­tic trial

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Ta­mara Chuang

Colorado will be the site of a first-of-its-kind test track for a fu­tur­is­tic trans­porta­tion sys­tem that could one day whisk pas­sen­gers from down­town Den­ver to Boulder in eight minutes.

Ar­rivo, a Los An­ge­les startup, will part­ner with the Colorado Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion to build the half-mile track along­side the E-470 toll­way near Den­ver International Air­port, and open a re­search and de­vel­op­ment cen­ter in Com­merce City. Ar­rivo is one of a new breed of high-tech com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing the speed­ier and bet­ter-funded Vir­gin Hyper­loop One, at­tempt­ing to by­pass road con­ges­tion with ded­i­cated tracks for faster travel.

“We’re call­ing it the High Speed Su­per Ur­ban Net­work, which isn’t as good as (the term) hyper­loop. But we’re a pack of en­gi­neers. We’re open for brand­ing,” said Ar­rivo co-founder Bro­gan BamBro­gan. “Re­ally, our fo­cus is on end­ing traf­fic. That should be catchy enough for any­body, es­pe­cially in Den­ver.”

From host­ing the first au­ton­o­mous beer-de­liv­ery truck to

be­com­ing a fi­nal­ist for the global Hyper­loop One com­pe­ti­tion, Colorado’s rep­u­ta­tion as a place to test new trans­porta­tion tech­nolo­gies is on the rise as the state’s trans­porta­tion depart­ment looks to tech to deal with a ris­ing pop­u­la­tion, in­creased traf­fic deaths and pretty much the same an­nual bud­get. Its ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Shailen Bhatt, said the state has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to ex­plore all po­ten­tial tech­nolo­gies that could al­le­vi­ate con­ges­tion, keep cit­i­zens safer and of­fer a bet­ter al­ter­na­tive to 1950s fixes of widen­ing or re­pair­ing roads.

“The rea­son we’re part­ner­ing with Ar­rivo is the con­ges­tion in Colorado is only get­ting worse. That’s why CDOT is in­volved and say­ing, ‘Come work with us. Build out your test track here,’ ” Bhatt said. “It is fu­tur­is­tic. But just like Hyper­loop One that has a test track in Ne­vada, they’re hit­ting their mile­stones with tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ment. Ar­rivo be­lieves in nearer to the fu­ture, not 30 years from now but the next few years.”

Test track

The E-470 Pub­lic High­way Au­thor­ity, which is pre-ap­proved to ex­pand the toll roads to four lanes in both di­rec­tions, is let­ting Ar­rivo build its test track on about a half mile of land near an aban­doned toll plaza, BamBro­gan said. The site also will be used as an en­gi­neer­ing play­ground for Ar­rivo and com­ple­ment a sep­a­rate re­search and de­vel­op­ment of­fice to open in Com­merce City. Such roads would ul­ti­mately sup­port much more traf­fic, or up to 20,000 ve­hi­cles per lane per hour com­pared with to­day’s 3,000 on a “well-func­tion­ing free­way,” he said.

Last month, the state, through its Strate­gic Fund in­cen­tive, ap­proved up to a $760,000 grant to Ar­rivo over five years if the com­pany in­vests $4.4 mil­lion in a new re­search fa­cil­ity and cre­ates 152 new jobs with an av­er­age an­nual wage of $99,704. The in­cen­tive, how­ever, must be matched by lo­cal gov­ern­ments be­fore the state’s Of­fice of Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment and International Trade give its fi­nal ap­proval. Ar­rivo is ex­pected to in­vest $10 mil­lion to $15 mil­lion into the re­search and de­vel­op­ment of­fice and track.

Both trans­port tech­nolo­gies still bor­der on fan­tasy. The hyper­loop, an idea pop­u­lar­ized by SpaceX founder Elon Musk, re­lies on vac­uum-sealed tubes to push pods from one city to an­other at speeds of 670 miles per hour, ac­cord­ing to Los An­ge­les-based Hyper­loop One, which was re­named last month to Vir­gin Hyper­loop One af­ter Richard Bran­son’s Vir­gin Group made a strate­gic in­vest­ment.

Un­proven tech­nol­ogy

Ar­rivo has shared lit­tle about how its tech­nol­ogy works. While un­proven, Ar­rivo’s tech­nol­ogy ap­pears to have the en­gi­neer­ing chops. BamBro­gan is a for­mer SpaceX en­gi­neer who co-founded Hyper­loop One be­fore re­sign­ing af­ter is­sues with his co­founder. He started Ar­rivo last year. Many on Ar­rivo’s team, which num­bers about 40 em­ploy­ees to­day, came from those com­pa­nies.

Ar­rivo’s sys­tem uses a ded­i­cated road­way and va­ri­ety of pods — some hold en­tire cars, oth­ers just freight while an­other ver­sion acts like a shut­tle bus. The pods are ac­cel­er­ated by the road in­fra­struc­ture us­ing elec­tric­ity and magBut nets. The roads would have a lin­ear elec­tric mo­tor to pro­pel the ve­hi­cles along.

The sys­tem would op­er­ate on ded­i­cated lanes where the pods travel au­tonomously at up to 200 miles per hour — or about two-thirds slower than hyper­loop tech­nolo­gies.

BamBro­gan, who legally changed his name in 2013 to merge it with wife Bambi Liu’s, didn’t have cost es­ti­mates but said that the com­pany’s in­ter­nal re­search shows the sys­tem pay­ing off cap­i­tal ex­pen­di­tures in about 10 years. But, of course, costs and prof­its are still to be de­ter­mined, which is ex­actly why Ar­rivo needs to test the tech­nol­ogy to de­ter­mine if it’s tech­ni­cally and fi­nan­cially fea­si­ble, he said.

“We’re cer­tainly op­ti­mistic but if the study tells us there’s no com­mer­cial value or other things about Colorado, we’ll go de­ploy else­where,” he said. “As­sum­ing the study con­tin­ues to move for­ward, we do think we can have shov­els in the ground by 2019 and de­ploy the sys­tem in 2021.”

Vir­gin Hyper­loop is much fur­ther along. It has a one-third-mile test track in Ne­vada and has been test­ing its own pod at speeds of 193 mph.

State among fi­nal­ists

Colorado was named one of 10 fi­nal­ists for a hyper­loop route, and the com­pany has part­nered with CDOT to study the fea­si­bil­ity of the pro­posed route stretch­ing from Cheyenne to Pue­blo and west to Vail. The fi­nal route, how­ever, left out a Boulder-to-Den­ver leg, which Bhatt says Ar­rivo is bet­ter suited for.

And then there’s Musk, who pop­u­lar­ized hyper­loop travel about five years ago though he didn’t want to de­velop it. Not any­more, ap­par­ently. In July, Musk said on Twit­ter that his Bor­ing Co. was given the ap­proval to be­gin con­struct­ing an un­der­ground tun­nel by the Mary­land Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion. “NY-DC in 29 mins,” he said in the tweet.

for many watch­ing the these new trans­porta­tion ad­vances closely, the prob­lem isn’t the tech­nol­ogy. It’s the usual road­blocks that have ex­isted for years in all sorts of trans­porta­tion plans, said Rob En­derle, prin­ci­pal an­a­lyst for the tech­nol­ogy re­searcher En­derle Group.

“The is­sue with ad­vanced pro­grams like this is gov­ern­ment ap­proval, right of ways and risk,” En­derle said. “I ex­pect we will see this run­ning in Dubai long be­fore we see it here.”

For decades, it has been nearly im­pos­si­ble to get nec­es­sary ap­provals for ad­vanced “peo­ple movers” in the United States. En­derle pointed to Walt Dis­ney, who tried to get a mono­rail built to and from the Los An­ge­les Air­port in the 1960s.

“Walt Dis­ney tried to get a $3 mil­lion mono­rail ap­proved to the L.A. air­port in the ’60s and the gov­ern­ment spent $9 mil­lion on stud­ies just to prove it wasn’t eco­nom­i­cally vi­able. There is a huge head­wind here for ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy at scale, which is why much of the in­no­va­tion is go­ing on in places like China and Dubai,” he said. “But some states like Colorado are try­ing to be much more pro­gres­sive of late, so we’ll see.”

BamBro­gan, who worked on the early de­sign of the Dragon space­craft for SpaceX, said he feels he’s bring­ing the ethos of that com­pany to the com­mute.

“I love SpaceX. The vi­sion was huge. The team was su­per smart. I was able to be part of some­thing — a team that built a rocket and a space­ship that went to the space sta­tion and back to Earth on pur­pose,” BamBro­gan said. “I wanted to turn my skills back to Earth. I’m a big fan of Elon’s mis­sion to Mars but I just wanted to make Earth bet­ter.”

“There is a huge head­wind here for ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy at scale, which is why much of the in­no­va­tion is go­ing on in places like China and Dubai. But some states like Colorado are try­ing to be much more pro­gres­sive of late, so we’ll see.”

Rob En­derle, prin­ci­pal an­a­lyst for the tech­nol­ogy re­searcher En­derle Group

Cour­tesy of Ar­rivo

Ar­rivo, a new high-tech trans­porta­tion com­pany, pro­poses a ded­i­cated road­way where elec­tron­ics built into the roads pro­pel ve­hi­cles at speeds of 200 mph. The ve­hi­cles can hold a per­son’s car, carry freight or trans­port pas­sen­gers like a shut­tle bus. Some­day, a trip to Boulder from down­town Den­ver could take eight minutes.

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