Vacuum Pact

Victor board member Nick Earle is also SVP Global Field Operations for Hyperloop One, which aims to harness groundbreaking Hyperloop technology and change the way the world moves forever. He explains the thinking behind the idea, the scale of the task ahead – and how the future of travel is closer than we think.

When Nick Earle was asked to join the team behind Elon Musk’s new mobility concept Hyperloop One, it was too good an opportunity to miss. A veteran of Cisco, where he ran the cloud programme, Earle was contemplating retirement until he got the call that would shape the next stage of his life – and, if all goes to plan, the future of transportation. “When I saw what it was doing and how real it is” – Earle pauses before summarising the project’s game-changing potential – “this is a solution that will change the world and the lives of a billion people.

So how does it work? Much like the internet, in fact, which Earle describes as a way for digital packets of information to be sent direct to their destination, transforming the speed with which things can be shared – and plenty of business models in the process. “Imagine a superfast internet but for physical things,” says Earle. Put simply, it’s broadband for transportation, and the prospects for a revolution are equally if not more far-reaching.

A product of the next generation of transit by vacuum tubes, H1’s first commercial project will be a 99-mile system between Abu Dhabi and Dubai that, travelling at 700mph, promises to slash a two-hour trip right down to 12 minutes. Investment from the port operator DP World Group is an indication that highspeed cargo distribution is a major part of the development plan, alongside passenger transit.

But it’s the passengertransit arm of the business that’s attracting most attention. The reason is down to one thing, according to Earle: awful travel experiences the world over. “I’ve done more than 350 transatlantic flights in a 35-year career, and I know what a hassle transport is,” he says. He points out that there haven’t been any big transport innovations since maglev 50 years ago, so a fresh approach is sorely needed.

Responsible for H1’s customer-facing activities worldwide, Earle joined the project as SVP Global Field Operations in November 2016. Appropriately enough, he describes the speed of development at the company as “like being strapped to the front of the rocket”.

But when you’re inventing a way to travel that’s a blend of car, train and spaceship, perhaps that’s to be expected. Unsurprisingly for a project he calls the fifth mode of transport in the history of the world (after boats, trains, cars and planes), it’s a huge engineering project requiring an entirely new infrastructure: “It’s not an incremental improvement, it’s a new mode of transportation,” he says simply.

Many of the components required to get the project from pipedream into actual pipes have never existed before. “It’s very much like NASA in the ‘60s,” Earle says. “We have to create the technology from scratch.” So it stands to reason that the team designing and building H1 has been recruited from the space technology outfit SpaceX. Another venture set up by Musk, company literature states that the goal is nothing less than “enabling people to live on other planets”, making Hyperloop One seem almost (but not quite) pedestrian in comparison.

Back down to earth, there are several steps that need to be taken when you’re effectively designing a brand-new mode of transport. First up is public perception and the worry that shooting through a tube at high speed means “my face will peel off”, as Earle robustly puts it. In reality, there’s no difference in g-force between travelling by H1 and taking off in a private jet – but huge leaps in mankind have always been this way, and it can take time for everyone else to catch up. “When cars took off, they said women couldn’t travel on them because they’d faint,” Earle grins.

The next step is to work with regulators and governments to evaluate the technology, which poses its own challenges when you’re proposing something that’s never been done before. “We’re working with regulators all around the world because regulations don’t exist,” says Earle, sounding excited rather than perturbed by the prospect of forging a path into the unknown. Still, that’s only to be expected of a company determined to be part of humanity’s future travel solutions, and he’s confident that the technology needed to realise the H1 dream will be possible: “Once we get the safety certificate you’ll see it being built all around the world,” he believes.

That confidence will soon be put to the test in the desert outside Las Vegas, where H1 is inviting the world’s press to witness its “Kitty Hawk moment”. Referring to the North Carolina town where the Wright brothers made their first controlled powered flight, Earle believes the event will be of similar magnitude: “It’ll unblock the biggest bottleneck in business, which is transportation,” he says.

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