WARP SPEED AHEAD

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How our best and bright­est plan to de­liver on Hy­per­loop’s prom­ise of a 39-minute trip from Toronto to Mon­treal.

The Hy­per­loop may sound like the stuff of sci­ence fic­tion, but it's closer than you might think Ð and Canada is, im­prob­a­bly, lead­ing the tech­no­log­i­cal charge to make it a re­al­ity BY JOSHUA OSTROFF

On the af­ter­noon of Fe­bru­ary 6, 2018, mil­lions gath­ered around smart­phones and lap­tops to stream bil­lion­aire fu­tur­ist Elon Musk as he fired his cherry-red Tesla road­ster into or­bit aboard his Spacex rocket ship, the Fal­con Heavy. He landed two of the three reusable rock­ets back on earth, in bal­letic tan­dem, eight min­utes later. The iconic South African–cana­dian CEO once again made his­tory by push­ing us into the fu­ture, much like his hero Nikola Tesla, the cultish in­ven­tor he named his elec­tric-car com­pany af­ter.

This has been Musk’s M.O. since he cashed out of Paypal to spend his dot­com for­tune turn­ing sci­ence fic­tion into fact. But one of Musk’s great­est lega­cies may be a tech­nol­ogy he didn’t come up with and isn’t even cur­rently build­ing – the Hy­per­loop.

It’s based on the idea of send­ing peo­ple or cargo in lev­i­tat­ing pods through a near-vac­uum steel tube at the speed of sound, or about 1,200 km/h. This would get you from Toronto to Mon­treal in 39 min­utes, or less time than it takes to watch an episode of Black Mir­ror.

Fa­ther of space­flight Robert God­dard first came up with the idea for a vac­uum-tube train back in 1909. His con­cept elim­i­nates rail fric­tion with lev­i­ta­tion and re­duces air re­sis­tance with a de­pres­sur­ized tube, recre­at­ing the physics of fly­ing at 200,000 feet. The vac­train was largely for­got­ten un­til 2013, when Musk dubbed it the Hy­per­loop in a 57-page, open-source white pa­per that com­pared the sci­en­tific prin­ci­ple to an air-hockey ta­ble (though most pro­fes­sional de­signs have ditched his "air-bear­ing" idea for pas­sive mag­nets), and ar­gued that it'd be faster, cheaper, and more sus­tain­able than cur­rent modes of trans­porta­tion.

Then he chal­lenged the tech world to build it be­cause, well, he was kinda busy.

It worked. Thanks to Musk’s cult of per­son­al­ity and car­ni­val-barker mar­ket­ing in­stincts, his now-copy­righted re­brand of an old-timey tech­nol­ogy — al­beit one that looks like how we imag­ined we’d be trav­el­ling in the fu­ture — cre­ated a new in­dus­try from thin air, pulled in fel­low bil­lion­aire en­tre­pre­neur Richard Bran­son, and set engi­neer­ing stu­dents around the world ablaze with ex­cite­ment.

And much of this Hy­per­loop push is com­ing from Canada. Thanks to the feds putting bil­lions into the In­no­va­tion Su­per­clus­ters Ini­tia­tive and Na­tional Trade Cor­ri­dors Fund, our per­fectly spaced cities and lack of high-speed rail, and the lead­ing-edge en­gi­neers of the Toronto–water­loo tech hub, we’ve

be­come lead­ers at all lev­els of this new tech­nol­ogy — which may be ar­riv­ing faster than we think.

Deep Dhillon had never even heard of the Hy­per­loop when he first ar­rived at the Univer­sity of Water­loo to study math and com­puter sci­ence. Then again, his dad built him his first com­puter in grade 8, and it didn’t have In­ter­net. “I had a bit of data on my phone,” he re­calls, “but I didn’t know what to do with it.” Ev­ery­thing changed two years later when he moved to Bramp­ton, On­tario, from a small agri­cul­tural town in the Tarn Taran district of Pun­jab, In­dia. “I look back and think how far I have come,” Dhillon grins. “It was like a dream go­ing to Spacex.”

One way that Musk, who Dhillon de­scribes as “like Iron Man, or like Lex Luthor but the nicer ver­sion,” has stayed in­volved is by build­ing a mile-long test track on the Spacex cam­pus in Hawthorne, Cal­i­for­nia to host the stu­dent engi­neer­ing Hy­per­loop Pod Com­pe­ti­tion. Dhillon was re­cently pro­moted to tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor for his univer­sity’s won­der­fully named Water­loop team. Com­pris­ing over 100 stu­dents, this ex­tracur­ric­u­lar club has been de­vel­op­ing a pod that they’ve named Goose, af­ter the birds that plague their school grounds.

Their ca­noe-shaped black fi­bre­glass pro­to­type is 2.5 me­tres long and 150 kg, and lifts the pod on a thin air cush­ion while spin­ning mag­netic wheels pro­pel it for­ward. Spacex re­ceived 1,700 ap­pli­ca­tions af­ter an­nounc­ing their com­pe­ti­tion; by Jan­uary 2017, that was whit­tled down to 27 teams, in­clud­ing Water­loop, which had just suc­cess­fully tested the world’s first pneu­matic Hy­per­loop lev­i­ta­tion sys­tem.

They were the only all-cana­dian team, and among the top 15 at Au­gust's Week­end Com­pe­ti­tion II af­ter a week of pre-run eval­u­a­tion. They also brought the only com­pletely con­tact­less pod that never touched the rails, which at this stage of devel­op­ment made their de­sign slower but more in­no­va­tive. They re­ceived vi­tal feed­back from Spacex en­gi­neers and test­ing in a vac­uum for the first time but didn’t com­plete the 100-point safety-test check­list needed to en­ter the fi­nal race. “They treat it like a rocket,” Dhillon says. Only the top three teams made the fi­nal cut. Ger­many’s reign­ing champ WARR Hy­per­loop hit a top speed of 323 km/h, or al­most four times faster than its win­ning Jan­uary run, while Switzer­land’s Swiss­loop placed third, and Par­a­digm (a Can-am col­lab be­tween New­found­land’s Memo­rial Univer­sity and Bos­ton’s North­east­ern) came in sec­ond at 101 km/h. Par­a­digm was the only team to do away with mag­netic lev­i­ta­tion in favour of an air-bear­ing sys­tem, mak­ing them world pi­o­neers of that tech­nol­ogy, “pri­mar­ily be­cause it was the orig­i­nal idea that Elon in­tro­duced,” team mem­ber Ben Lip­po­lis told CBC af­ter their win.

Team Water­loop, mean­while, is hard at work on Goose III, and await­ing de­sign ap­proval from Spacex to en­ter the third com­pe­ti­tion this sum­mer. Though all these pro­to­types are at very early stages and made by stu­dents with lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence and fund­ing, what their de­signs of­fer over more es­tab­lished op­er­a­tions is an ex­per­i­men­tal ap­proach to the tech­nol­ogy that pushes bound­aries — be­cause they don’t know what those bound­aries are yet.

“What­ever they show in the movies can be done — it’s just that we don’t know how yet,” Dhillon says be­fore proudly dis­play­ing the lat­est it­er­a­tion in their engi­neer­ing build­ing workspace. “If you asked peo­ple in the past how doors open au­to­mat­i­cally, they’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s magic!’

“Now we’re liv­ing in a world where such things are pos­si­ble.”

" Trans­porta­tion is partly about mov­ing peo­ple from A to B, but it’s also much more than that,” says Matti Siemi­aty­cki, a Univer­sity of Toronto as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor whose fo­cus is in­fra­struc­ture plan­ning, fi­nanc­ing, and project de­liv­ery.

“There’s a sym­bolic di­men­sion to trans­porta­tion which is re­ally about our own imag­i­na­tion and what’s pos­si­ble. We dream about these types of ideas,” he says, of­fer­ing ex­am­ples like Star Wars’ light­speed, Star Trek trans­porters, and

The Jet­sons’ pneu­matic tubes. “The way we think of these big ini­tia­tives is how this tech­nol­ogy will change our re­la­tion­ship with time and space.”

Trans­porta­tion ad­vances do shrink our world. When my grand­fa­ther sailed from Paris to Mon­treal as a tod­dler in the early 1900s, his steamship took five days, a frac­tion of the months Sa­muel de Cham­plain spent us­ing sails. Mod­ern air­planes cut that trip down to five hours.

Cana­dian his­tory is, in many ways, the his­tory of trans­porta­tion in­no­va­tion — from In­dige­nous peo­ples trav­el­ling via ca­noe and dogsled and Euro­peans ar­riv­ing by boat, to the steam-pow­ered transcon­ti­nen­tal trains ty­ing our sprawl­ing, sparsely pop­u­lated con­fed­er­a­tion to­gether, and the cars that spread our cities out­ward. Now Hy­per­loop prom­ises to con­nect our pop­u­la­tions by mak­ing travel be­tween ma­jor me­trop­o­lises quicker than cross­ing their down­towns dur­ing rush hour.

The Toronto–ot­tawa–mon­treal cor­ri­dor was the only Cana­dian route among 10 win­ning en­tries in a “Global Chal­lenge” com­pe­ti­tion held by Vir­gin Hy­per­loop One last fall, which saw over 100 pitches to host the first-ever Hy­per­loop. ("Vir­gin" was added to the name late last year when Richard Bran­son was named chair­man in the wake of co-founder Shervin Pi­she­var’s leave of ab­sence due to sex­ual mis­con­duct al­le­ga­tions.)

In­spired by Musk’s call­out, Hy­per­loop One now has over 300 em­ploy­ees, and a pro­to­type pod that hit 400 km/h with only 300 me­tres of ac­cel­er­a­tion in their Ne­vada test loop. They have am­bi­tious plans to put op­er­a­tional sys­tems in ser­vice by 2021.

“We are the big game in town,” says Dan Katz, Hy­per­loop One's di­rec­tor of global pub­lic pol­icy and North Amer­i­can projects, over the phone from his L.A. of­fice. “All these things we are think­ing about, we’re ac­com­plish­ing.” At the least, they’re gath­er­ing mo­men­tum in­ter­na­tion­ally and spark­ing ex­cite­ment in Toronto and Mon­treal.

“Those are two ma­jor cities at a nice dis­tance for us to in­stall one of the first sys­tems – it’s not too close, not too far,” ex­plains Katz. “Canada has this real op­por­tu­nity as the only G7 coun­try that doesn’t have high-speed rail in some form. It’s in a po­si­tion to leapfrog over ev­ery­one else and jump straight to Hy­per­loop.”

Hy­per­loop One is now wait­ing on a grant ap­pli­ca­tion from Trans­port Canada to fund a fea­si­bil­ity study. As is Cana­dian com­peti­tor Trans­pod Inc. — co-founded in 2015 by Se­bastien Gen­dron, a France-born aero­space en­gi­neer who’s worked for Air­bus and Bom­bardier. Trans­pod has an even more am­bi­tious vi­sion to build a Hy­per­loop con­nect­ing Que­bec City, Mon­treal, Ot­tawa, Toronto, Detroit, and Chicago. Their ini­tial cost anal­y­sis claims their pro­pri­etary Hy­per­loop — still in the de­sign stage with a pro­to­type due this fall — would cost 50 per cent less and travel four times faster than high-speed rail.

“We’ve had some feed­back from the gov­ern­ment that Toronto–mon­treal is a com­pli­cated cor­ri­dor be­cause we’re deal­ing with two prov­inces, and Via Rail is push­ing for a ded­i­cated line. They asked us to also look at the cor­ri­dor be­tween Cal­gary and Ed­mon­ton,” Gen­dron adds from his small of­fice in the tech hub of down­town Toronto’s MARS Dis­cov­ery District. “Those are two big cities that should be con­nected, and the rid­er­ship makes it eco­nom­i­cally vi­able.” Trans­pod is seek­ing gov­ern­ment sup­port to build a 10 km test track near Cal­gary, and has al­ready se­cured land for a smaller half-scale track three hours out­side Paris.

Gen­dron pre­dicts cargo will get the green light be­fore peo­ple do, and that e-com­merce and courier com­pa­nies like Ama­zon and Fedex are likely to be among the big­gest cus­tomers. “As it’s a new trans­porta­tion mode, we’re try­ing to be prag­matic and ac­knowl­edge that reg­u­la­tory agen­cies will ap­prove the sys­tem for freight first. Even if we’re com­pli­ant with reg­u­la­tion and the sys­tem is bul­let­proof, they’ll want to see that run­ning for one or two years with goods be­fore ap­prov­ing it for pas­sen­gers.”

Tak­ing ad­van­tage of Gen­dron’s Euro­pean roots and the state of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, the Toronto-based Hy­per­loop com­pany also has of­fices and part­ner­ships in Italy and France. “Thank you, Trump,” he laughs. “It’s def­i­nitely help­ing us. The trade agree­ment in progress be­tween Canada and Europe is a good fit for us. There’s no ap­petite to sup­port U.S. com­pa­nies as we speak, and as there are only a few play­ers, we're in a good spot to take the lead.”

Gen­dron be­lieves that the lack of po­lit­i­cal will that has been ham­per­ing in­fra­struc­ture devel­op­ment in re­cent decades is fi­nally giv­ing way. He pre­dicts a com­mer­cial Hy­per­loop line will be run­ning by 2030. “Au­tonomous cars. Elec­tric cars. Musk land­ing rock­ets. We’re start­ing to see a wave of peo­ple with am­bi­tion, and we’re also fac­ing chal­lenges, like cli­mate change, which are push­ing peo­ple and so­ci­ety to in­no­vate,” he says. “There is a shift hap­pen­ing in the Cana­dian mind­set. I used to hear that Cana­di­ans were riska­verse, but with Mon­sieur Trudeau we are see­ing a change, and a lot of ini­tia­tives pro­mot­ing in­no­va­tion in gen­eral. Now it’s time to see if Canada will walk the talk.”

"We have a tech-for­ward com­mu­nity, and we have a lot of trans­porta­tion prob­lems, so it doesn’t sur­prise me at all that we have a lot of peo­ple dream­ing of how to make things bet­ter,” Siemi­aty­cki says. He notes Canada’s skilled en­gi­neers, great en­trepreneurs, plugged-in pub­lic who hears about and sup­ports these ideas, and good track record with pub­lic–pri­vate part­ner­ships. But, he adds, “What’s im­por­tant to keep in mind is Hy­per­loop is not the first moon­shot. And for all the ones that have hit, there’s a scrap­yard of ideas that didn’t.”

The mono­rail, for in­stance, will whisk you around Dis­ney’s Magic King­dom, but its To­mor­row­land prom­ise has been oth­er­wise re­duced to a mem­o­rable fourth-sea­son Simp­sons par­ody. New York’s sub­way was ini­tially pro­posed as a pneu­matic-tube train. The Ben­nie Railplane failed to bring pro­peller-driven trains to Scot­land in the ’30s. Ger­many’s Wup­per­tal Sus­pen­sion Rail­way, an el­e­vated train hang­ing be­low a track built in 1901, still runs to­day but never ex­panded be­yond 20 sta­tions. The “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” Seg­way only moves tourists about. And the “hy­dro­gen high­way” link­ing Van­cou­ver and Whistler failed af­ter fuel-cell cars never caught on, and the five fu­elling sta­tions were shut­tered.

Whether or not these tech­ni­cal ideas work may not mat­ter, if they don't work bet­ter than what we al­ready have, or if some­thing even more ef­fec­tive and ef­fi­cient comes along. That's not to men­tion con­cerns about en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact, af­ford­abil­ity, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and, of course, where to put hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres of Hy­per­loop.

“That’s the chal­lenge rail­ways have had,” Siemi­aty­cki says. “Via Rail can’t get a new right-of-way be­tween Toronto and Mon­treal. It goes through a lot of dif­fer­ent land­scapes, and it’s ex­pen­sive and tech­ni­cally chal­leng­ing to buy those up. So there’s the plan­ning con­cerns and po­lit­i­cal di­men­sion of how one does that.”

Hy­per­loop One has sug­gested build­ing along gov­ern­ment-owned high­way cor­ri­dors or aban­doned rail lines. An­other so­lu­tion is bury­ing it, which is where Musk re-en­ters the pic­ture. In late 2016, he founded The Bor­ing Com­pany to make tun­nelling 10 times more af­ford­able both for stan­dard traf­fic and to house the Hy­per­loop for long-dis­tance routes. Musk even tweeted he had “ver­bal gov­ern­ment ap­proval” for a tun­nel con­nect­ing New York and D.C., though that was dis­puted by sur­prised bu­reau­crats, and oth­ers have doubted his abil­ity to re­duce the cost of tun­nelling enough to make an un­der­ground Hy­per­loop fea­si­ble.

Siemi­aty­cki also warns that “these tech­nolo­gies can dis­tract us from day-to-day pri­or­i­ties,” tak­ing fo­cus and fund­ing away from less sexy so­lu­tions that im­prove our lives in­cre­men­tally. But while re­al­is­tic about po­ten­tial chal­lenges, he’s also op­ti­mistic about po­ten­tial ben­e­fits.

“Through­out his­tory, the idea of build­ing phys­i­cal con­nec­tions that bring peo­ple to­gether has been over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive. It’s how so­ci­eties grow and thrive — build­ing bridges is both lit­eral and metaphor­i­cal.”

“What­ever they show in the movies can be done it’s just that we don’t know how yet.”

“Au­tonomous cars. Musk land­ing rock­ets. We’re start­ing to see a wave of am­bi­tion.”

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