The good people of Denver, Colorado, have seen the self-driving trucks that deliver beer and those designed to get smashed. They have wooed Silicon Valley and welcomed big pot. Now they are getting a hyperloop.
Well, not exactly a hyperloop. A hyperloop-inspired system. “It’s a meaningful distinction,” says Brogan BamBrogan (yup, his legal name), founder and CEO of Arrivo, which today announced a deal with the Colorado Department of Transportation to develop such a network throughout the Denver metropolitan region that looks an awful lot like the maglev train systems now running in Japan and China.
When Elon Musk first publicized this idea for high-speed tube travel in a 2013 white paper, he described people- or cargo-filled pods levitating above a track inside near-vacuum tubes. This elimination of nearly all friction and drag would mean that the pods could hit near-supersonic speeds with relatively little energy expenditure. Since then, hundreds of people and a handful of companies have been trying to realize hyperloop. They have mixed and matched Musk’s ingredients, trying to find a recipe that delivers the right blend of cost, speed, and infrastructural feasibility.
Arrivo has made a more fundamental change: It’s dumping the vacuum and accepting that it will have to push through the pesky, drag-inducing air molecules that make supersonic ground travel so difficult. Building a tube and keeping it in a near-vacuum state is simply too complicated and expensive, BamBrogan says, to make it worth trying.
Plowing through the thick soup humans know as ambient pressure, his pods will max out around 200 mph. That’s nowhere near supersonic, but considering Arrivo’s focus on short, direct routes, between 10 and 60 miles, it’s plenty quick. “The value is not necessarily the top speed for us,” says BamBrogan. “The real value is going point-to-point, no traffic.”
The system could turn a trip from downtown Denver from a 35- to 70-minute drive to a 10-minute whoosh. Better yet, ditching the tubular tendencies should make the system cheaper to construct and maintain, though Arrivo would likely enclose the pod and track to keep things like children and debris away.
Arrivo plans to start with a test site running alongside the E-470 toll road, which runs north-south to the east of Denver, past the city’s main airport. The hyperloop could even run on the privately operated road itself, taking the space of a lane for each direction of travel. In nearby Aurora, the company will build an engineering and technology center, and add 200 employees by 2020. With funding from the state, its Aecom infrastructure partner, the E-470 Public Highway Authority, and its own coffers, Arrivo will start with a feasibility study in the hopes of having a commercial system running in four to five years.
While competing outfits like Hyperloop One (which BamBrogan helped start, then left amid a bitter and bizarre lawsuit), Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, and Elon Musk himself promise intercity networks, BamBrogan wants to focus on connecting areas within cities with a variety of pods. Some will carry people, others cargo. One version would ferry your entire car from A to B. But the train is not meant for rocketing between states or countries.
“If I want to travel really fast between two cities in a low-pressure environment inside a metal tube, I would use an airplane,” BamBrogan says. “They’re very efficient, the ride is smooth, the orange juice is free.”
The engineer’s clever line speaks to a bigger truth: what we talk about when we talk about hyperloop. This thing, after all, is not an invention. It’s a clever packaging of existing technologies—tubes, vacuum pumps, magnetic levitation—that together make something very cool and futuristic. That’s part of Elon Musk’s magic: the ability to generate massive excitement, support, and funding by reimagining what we already have. Electric cars, for example, were around for a century before Musk’s Tesla made them a status symbol and helped spark a shift away from fossil fuels.
So it’s not surprising that even though Arrivo is promising what most people would recognize as a maglev train—a thing that has existed for years—BamBrogan is sticking with Musk’s branding. “I love the word hyperloop. I wish I’d thought of it,” he says. But he doesn’t care all that much what it gets called. “The problem we’re trying to take on is getting you to the airport.”
That statement feels like a deflation of ambition, and such is the way of infrastructure: Bold dreams and budgetary promises are all too easily bulldozed by practicalities. But hey, at least you can’t accuse BamBrogan of promising a pipe dream.