Pacific Hyperloop is moving ahead with its concept for tube travel between Seattle and Portland, in hopes of riding in the slipstream of the Pacific Northwest’s growing interest in ultra-high-speed transit.
“If Seattle and Portland were just 20 minutes apart, what could we accomplish together?” Charlie Swan, a University of Washington senior who’s Pacific Hyperloop’s co-founder and regional engagement manager, said on Saturday during the TEDxSeattle 2017 conference.
Swan said sending magnetically levitating pods between the two cities would help knit together the region, resulting in a “type of human interaction like the world has never seen before.”
But turning that vision into reality isn’t totally up to Pacific Hyperloop, which Swan says currently consists of a five-person team. Estimates suggest that it’d take somewhere between $24 billion and $42 billion to create an ultra-high-speed system connecting Seattle and Portland as well as Vancouver, B.C. to the north.
— TEDxSeattle (@TEDxSeattle) November 18, 2017
That’s the initial assessment coming out of a $300,000 study commissioned by the Washington State Department of Transportation. Businesses such as Microsoft are contributing tens of thousands of dollars more in support of the study, which is to be completed and sent to the Washington Legislature by Dec. 15.
During an October meeting of the study’s advisory group, experts said the decision on whether to go with a Hyperloop-style magnetic-levitation system or a more traditional high-speed rail system would have be addressed by “additional analysis beyond this study.”
“Hyperloop technology is in its infancy,” according to an advisory group report issued in September. “It will be considered, but it does not have commercial data to compare to commercial data of proven technologies.”
After his TEDx talk, Swan told GeekWire that the study is likely to guide Pacific Hyperloop’s future course.
“The state study will be a good indicator of the geographical feasibility from a technical standpoint,” Swan said. “I think our role is to align incentives for private industry and figure out how we can involve the many corporations we have here in the region.”
Swan declined to name the potential business partners involved in the discussions, but it’s worth noting that fellow co-founder Ahmed ElAyouty has nine years of experience as a Boeing engineer.
“Right now there are a few things in the pipeline that Ahmed has been mostly heading up … commercial partnerships, looking at how different companies that currently utilize that [Seattle-Portland] route a lot, how they can leverage that opportunity,” Swan said. “We should have an announcement in the next few months.”
In the meantime, Pacific Hyperloop is trying to help businesses and the public become more familiar with Hyperloop technology, which typically involves sending magnetic-levitation pods through low-pressure tubes at near-supersonic speeds.
The concept was laid out in 2013 by Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla. Since then, several commercial ventures have begun work to make the concept a reality. Musk himself is backing a venture called The Boring Company that aims to use some aspects of Hyperloop technology for underground transit systems.
Last month, British billionaire Richard Branson revealed that Virgin Group was investing millions of dollars in a different venture called Hyperloop One. That company is testing a prototype system in Nevada and is working on development deals in the U.S. as well as the United Arab Emirates, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands and India.
Pacific Hyperloop was one of the teams that participated in a Hyperloop One competition for transit proposals, and got as far as the semifinalist round before it was eliminated in September.
Swan was sanguine about not making the final cut. He said the competition raised Pacific Hyperloop’s profile, even if it wasn’t selected as one of the 10 winners. And as he assessed the challenges facing 21st-century transportation technologies, he fell back on truisms that have been around for hundreds of years.