go to content
Tech

Hyping The Hyperloop: How A Moonshot Technology Could Become A Reality

In downtown L.A., millions of dollars and hundreds of labor hours are being spent on a technology most people don't believe exists. But as powerful political players start to get involved with the company, traveling just under the speed of sound is getting a little more real.

Posted on
BuzzFeed / Caroline O'Donovan

Hyperloop Technologies employees and their guests gather for a party at the company's Innovation Campus in the arts district of Downtown Los Angeles.

Brogan BamBrogan wants to know if he should put a shirt on. It's been a hectic day of preparations for a big party, and he's been running around in a T-shirt trying to figure out last-minute plans. But in a few hours there's a board meeting for Hyperloop Technologies -- a company where BamBrogan serves as CTO -- and investors are already starting to show up to tour its 2.5-acre "Innovation Campus" in Downtown Los Angeles' Arts District. BamBrogan is whisked away — probably to explain the nuances of magnetic levitation technology to some billionaire or other. The next time he appears, at a brand-new, 32-foot-long walnut-and-steel conference table that seats up to 25 people, he's wearing a short-sleeve dress shirt — with no more than three buttons done.

Later that late September night, in the same massive, exposed-brick, industrial warehouse — complete with an engineering test lab, warehouses for light manufacturing, and a handful of 11-foot-wide steel tubes — at the edges of what are considered hip and dangerous neighborhoods in central L.A, BamBrogan, Hyperloop co-founder Shervin Pishevar, and newly minted Hyperloop Technologies CEO Rob Lloyd will host Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and 200 other local luminaries, West Coast investors, political consultants, neighborhood artists, and SpaceX engineers. By that time, BamBrogan has changed his costume once again, this time into a suit.

The event, held under those ubiquitous California string lights, was catered by L.A.'s trendiest food trucks; cocktails included frozen margaritas that looked more like balls of sherbet than drinks, and shooters of a viscous, clear liquid in which small pink pearls of liquor were suspended. The atmosphere was distinctly L.A., with some of the women in tight bandage dresses and very high heels and the men, for the most part, in jackets (though one wore a kilt). As the sun sank behind the corrugated metal of one of Hyperloop's warehouses, pink light slanted across the dance floor, the café tables, and the partygoers waiting in line for too-sweet Old Fashioneds.

The occasion for the celebration was the hiring of Rob Lloyd, former president of Cisco Systems. Lloyd hasn't started his new job as CEO in full yet, and is still living in Northern California, but was down in L.A. for his second board meeting. Lloyd isn't the only industry heavyweight involved with Hyperloop: The board includes Pishevar, Emily White, formerly of Snapchat; David Sacks, formerly of PayPal; Joe Lonsdale, founder of Palantir; and Jim Messina, former deputy chief of staff to President Obama. Most of them joined the party and were repeatedly toasted from the podium.

But the festivities weren't really just about welcoming Lloyd to the company; they were about showing the world that the hyperloop is more than a moonshot idea floated by a bunch of zany engineers — it's also got a critical mass of grownups on board, and a premise promising enough to make the mayor of America's second-most populous city slog through L.A. traffic to sing the project's praises. Still, getting people zipping along at a speed that touches the sound barrier without barfing is no small challenge — and that's before you've figured out how to pay for it.

A hyperloop is basically a vacuum-sealed tube, inside of which there is a pod that can, theoretically, move very quickly, possibly exceeding 700 miles per hour. Because no hyperloop has ever been constructed, however, there is no one definitive use case or design. Some plans place the tubes above ground, others underground. Some go through water; various pod designs are on skis, or wheels, or levitate using a number of different methods. Some engineers are planning to use hyperloops to move people quickly and comfortably from place to place, while other are working on systems meant to transport goods faster than ever before.

The idea of the hyperloop did not originate with anyone at Hyperloop Technologies. In fact, this isn't even the only company trying to build one. And the man who actually came up with the ideaElon Musk — was conspicuously absent from the festivities. In 2013, Musk released a whitepaper in which he sketched out, for the first time, his idea for how to build a hyperloop. But, what with trying to revolutionize commercial space travel and dominate the electric car market — via his companies SpaceX and Tesla, respectively — Musk was too busy to build it himself. The document, simply titled "Hyperloop Alpha," was a challenge to engineers around the world.

About a year ago, that challenge was picked up by Shervin Pishevar, who is not an engineer, but does stand to some day make a significant amount of money off of his major investment in Uber, and was looking for something to do with it. Pishevar needed an engineer to see if the project was really viable; he recruited BamBrogan, who had been at SpaceX for eight years, for the job. "If you look at what it can deliver in terms of driverless, weatherproof, fast, safe — all these things are great," BamBrogan told BuzzFeed News. "But can you do it on a cost structure that is reasonable? As we started to run the numbers, we started to understand — the answer is yes."

In the wider world, the Hyperloop concept seems about as actual and legitimate as a flying car. But if there's one thing everyone at Hyperloop Technologies knows for sure, it's that the hyperloop is real. That fact — the legitimate, technological plausibility of the thing — is repeated at Hyperloop headquarters almost like a chant. They want the world to know that building a hyperloop — right now, as we speak, today — is possible.

On paper, at least.

SpaceX is, ostensibly, not working on a hyperloop, and Hyperloop Technologies, despite being Musk's idea, has no connection to SpaceX. But the two companies share a number of similarities — and not by accident. BamBrogan described SpaceX as "the most fun place I'd ever been," and as CEO of Hyperloop Technologies, he wanted to inspire the same sense of opportunity and "unconstrained resources."

"We're definitely bringing lots of parts of SpaceX into it," BamBrogan told BuzzFeed News. "I think the way we're working is very similar to that on purpose."

Though not physically present, Musk — with whom everyone at the party, at the company, maybe even in the city seemed to be on a first-name basis — was hard to avoid. Musk insists he has no interest in commercializing the hyperloop, but earlier this summer SpaceX announced a competition for students to design the ideal pod. The point, supposedly, is to stir up excitement, but it can be hard to tell whether Musk does or doesn't want to be associated with the development of the technology.

Musk is the man behind the idea, but to convince the world that the hypothetical is a reality, Hyperloop Technologies needed a different set of men entirely. BamBrogan, with his mustache, creative choice of name (he merged names with his wife, Bambi, when they were married; she is now Bambi BamBrogan and he is Brogan BamBrogan), and tendency toward enthusiastic hugs, seems like a visionary leader. But, while his faith in the hyperloop is convincing, he admits he lacks the business chops to sell it to foreign dignitaries and transportation executives as a realistic transit option. In fact, BamBrogan said the most difficult part of his time alone at the top was dealing with unexpected levels of interest from potential customers.

Which is exactly where Lloyd, the reason for the party, comes in. At Cisco — a company worth $129 billion, with more 70,000 employees — Lloyd built "billions of dollars in sales," according to Brogan; at Hyperloop Technologies, he plans to start building a sales team right away. Lloyd was hired because of his experience executing major infrastructure deals; his presence means Hyperloop Technologies is ready to get serious about building — and funding — this thing.

The first step, as he described it, is to make people understand the hyperloop not as one singular object, but rather — like railways or highways — a method of transit with any number of uses. To that end, Hyperloop Technologies, according to Lloyd, will soon have a catalog of products for customers to choose from, "a family of solutions or systems that actually fits the almost infinite use cases" of hyperloop technology.

Lloyd's arrival may have been the cause for celebration, but the man of the hour was Mayor Eric Garcetti, who had accepted a long-standing invitation to visit to the Innovation Campus. Garcetti is excited to bring more technology to Los Angeles, especially its historically blighted downtown, which is now home to 50,000 residents. Garcetti credited Hyperloop Technologies for its contribution to the "urban homesteading" of Downtown Los Angeles, referring to the businesses that have helped turn the L.A. Arts District from a neighborhood, in the words of one cab driver, in which "you wouldn't want to walk around," into a neighborhood, in the words of one sitting mayor, where "the hottest restaurant in town" can be found.

The mayor is visibly animated by the idea of the hyperloop; he even jokingly volunteered to be its first test passenger. But because the hyperloop is intrinsically of a scope much broader than any one city — "it's not really a crosstown thing" — he said the role for municipal funding in the actual building of the thing is limited. But the mayor does think some combination of private funds and public funds could one day build a hyperloop — and who knows, if he should rise to higher office (one hyperloop executive did joke at the podium that Garcetti could one day become governor of California) he could have a significant role to play in such a partnership.

"I've been part of the marketing department," Garcetti joked. "I talk about it all the time. I've talked to [U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx], the vice president, the president — and they're not paying me a thing!"

Having a prominent local politician in your corner and hiring a veteran technology sales executive with top-shelf management experience is absolutely one way to convince the world you're serious about shooting a pod through a tube over 700 miles per hour. But at the end of the day, when it comes to feats of engineering, the best way to prove you can do it is to do it.

To that end, the company plans, by early 2017 at the latest, to construct a two-mile test track for the hyperloop somewhere in the California desert. When it's ready to go, they'll put some kind of weight — "We're going to put a ballast in there, like a bag of sand," BamBrogan said — in an as-yet-undesigned pod and see how fast it can go. Since the designs are not yet complete, it's hard to say exactly what that will look like, but it's easiest to compare the enormous cylinders that open and close with caps at each end to the vacuum tubes that are used to exchange money at a drive-thru bank teller.

If the test version does, as planned, reach a top speed of 700 miles per hour at the roughly 1.3-mile mark and then, somehow, manage to slow to a stop, that will be a huge moment for Hyperloop Technologies. Around the office, this is referred to as "the Kitty Hawk moment" — a reference to the moment when Orville and Wilbur Wright got the first airplane off the ground. "One of our guys has that picture as the background on his computer," Pishevar said.

The irony of a two-mile test track for a transportation technology that is supposed to exceed 700 miles per hour is that the test, if all goes well, will last less than a second. In fact, given how confident BamBrogan and his engineers feel about their designs, investing so much in a "Kitty Hawk" moment of such short duration almost seems unnecessary.

But SpaceX materials engineer Chris Vasquez, who attended the Hyperloop Technologies party, said when it comes to engineering projects of this scale, there's always something to be learned from a test. While the hyperloop is definitely real and definitely works, we'll have to wait until the test track is up and running to know for sure. "It's all numbers," Vasquez said, "until you build it."

All of the components that go into building the hyperloop already existed when Elon Musk combined them into a new idea. BamBrogan's task has been to turn that plan into a reality, which involves an enormous amount of cost cutting. "We could build hyperloop today," said BamBrogan. "But to build it today would be pretty expensive to deploy, so a lot of the work we're doing on the innovation side on our team is to bring the cost way way down."

Primarily, this has involved trying to find a material to build the tube itself out of that costs less than pure steel. Other money-saving measures include aping tricks from the pipeline steel industry for dealing with corrosion, and observing how major manufacturers have saved money in the design of turbofan jet engines. But BamBrogan was shy about the details. "We don't want to give away too many secrets," he said.

Even with these cost reductions, a hyperloop will be enormously expensive. This February, Hyperloop Technologies told the press that the company would be announcing a funding round of somewhere around $80 million by the end of the year, half of which Pishevar said he would put up. They say at this point it's merely a matter of formally closing the deal, but while $80 million might build a test track, but it's nowhere near enough to build a real one.

Conventional wisdom says that without funding from a government agency, it will be impossible to pay for a hyperloop. But the catch-22, of course, is that until a government agency has proof that it will work, it will be unlikely to take such a financial risk. On top of that, Americans don't particularly like paying the high tax rates that tend to go along with major infrastructural projects. All of that makes the idea of a public-private partnership a tantalizing but unrealistic option. As Mayor Garcetti pointed out, the U.S. hasn't seen many successful transportation programs funded this way. "Less capitalist countries do so much better at them than we do," he said.

Other countries do much better when it comes to funding transportation in general; South Korea, China, and Japan have much more expansive high-speed rail programs than the U.S., for example, and the Chinese government is currently funding one of the most ambitious high-speed rail project in the U.S., the XpressWest train from L.A. to Las Vegas. It seems reasonable, at this point, to imagine that the first country to house a hyperloop will not be the one where it was invented — a scenario Mayor Garcetti described as "a bummer." At the same time, though, Lloyd said it's important to move fast.

"How can these core technologies be applied to where people want to solve a problem? Is it in the Middle East? Is it in Russia? Is it in the United States? Is it in Canada, China?" Lloyd asked. "We'll put our energy towards those places where we can move most quickly." Lloyd said it's "not a big stretch at all to imagine" the first functioning hyperloop connecting the three major centers of transport in Dubai.

Even if Hyperloop Technologies manages to build the test track, and it works, and even if no one gets hurt and they have their Kitty Hawk moment (in this case probably a Hawthorne desert moment), there's still a final hurdle — they need somewhere to put it. Transportation systems that cross large swaths of land have to acquire "rights of way" to do so. No organization has ever regulated a hyperloop before, which means actually acquiring the necessary permissions could be a drawn-out and difficult process. But BamBrogan said Hyperloop has a secret weapon that made him confident they could pull it off.

"When I first met Shervin [Pishevar], he said, we're going to do the hyperloop thing," BamBrogan said. "I said, I can build the technology — you've got to get me right of way to do it. He said, We've got Jim Messina on our board."

Messina, a Hyperloop board member, was campaign manager for Barack Obama's 2012 re-election and, after that, served as deputy chief of staff in the White House. A self-styled "guy behind the guy," Messina mostly hung in the back at the Hyperloop party. "After you work for Obama, you have to do great things," Messina said shortly after the speech making portion of the evening reached its end. "So I did Uber, and Airbnb, and now this."

There's little doubt that companies like Airbnb and Uber have had great impact on how residents of the 21st century move around and live in cities. It's not impossible to imagine that the speed and breadth of the change those companies have wrought would be exhilarating even after a stint in the White House. But the companies where Messina's services have previously been called for are both embroiled in extremely expensive legal battles that have, at this point, been dragging on for quite a while.

For now, both companies have plenty of cash to spare for legal bills, but the charges are serious and manifold, and could potentially spell the end for either one. If Messina is involved, it's because Hyperloop Technologies is expecting one hell of a fight. The difference between what Uber did and what Hyperloop is doing, though, is getting the heavyweight strategists on the board before the fight begins.

Everyone wants to know whether or not the hyperloop is real. Whether they'll get to ride one in their lifetime. Whether it's really being built. Looking out at a 2.5-acre campus, a 200-person party, thousands and thousands of square feet of test lab space, tons of steel tubes, dozens of employees, and a mayor on stage endorsing the company, it would be hard to say the Hyperloop isn't real.

But given the technological, financial, and regulatory questions that remain unresolved as it pertains to actually building a commercially viable hyperloop, it also doesn't seem quite right to talk about the thing as an eventuality, or a matter of fact. The conundrum is that, in order for the hyperloop to exist, a number of influential and powerful people have to believe that it can exist, a problem that other life-altering technologies — say, cell phones — didn't face. Building the hyperloop is like mass hysteria — if everyone believes it, it just might come true.

Mayor Garcetti couldn't stay very long at the party. He had an entertainment industry dinner to attend, where he said he'd undoubtedly be asked about Hyperloop. But Pishevar, Lloyd, and BamBrogan — who at one point was seen to be drinking a cocktail and a beer simultaneously — were all still there at the end of the night, well after the party had been officially slated to end. The mood was unusual for a tech company party, which, for most executives especially, usually involve one or two beers and a quick Uber home. But at Hyperloop, the dance floor was full for hours, bottles of expensive scotch were ferreted out of desk drawers, and local artists and former celebrities alike seemed excited about the whole prospect — even if they didn't totally understand what it was.

CORRECTION

Brogan BamBrogan's current title at Hyperloop Technologies is CTO; previously his title was interim CEO, and an earlier version of this article stated that his previous title was CEO. Additionally, a February Forbes article reported that the company would raise an approximately $80 million round by the end of 2015, not by the end of September 2015 and not with the involvement of Sherpa Ventures as a previous version of this article stated. Also, the Sept. 30 board meeting was Rob Lloyd's second, not his first.

Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Caroline O'Donovan at caroline.odonovan@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.