Story at a glance

  • The transportation technology company — an arm of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group — is hoping to completely overhaul the way people get from city-to-city.
  • Since 2014, the company has been building on SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s 2013 white paper detailing the hyperloop concept.
  • Changing America sat down with Virgin Hyperloop's Josh Giegel to discuss his journey to revolutionize the way we travel.

Virgin Hyperloop CEO and co-founder Josh Giegel wants to whisk millions of passengers down vacuum tubes in floating pods at speeds exceeding 600 miles per hour by the end of the decade.

The transportation technology company — an arm of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group — is hoping to completely overhaul the way people get from city-to-city. Since 2014, the company has been building on SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s 2013 white paper on the hyperloop concept, which lays out a futuristic transportation system made up of magnetically levitating pods that travel at high speeds through an enclosed low-pressure tube, reducing aerodynamic drag. 

In November 2020, Giegel became one of the first human passengers to test a hyperloop prototype at the company’s test track in the desert just outside Las Vegas. The pod, dubbed Pegasus, accelerated to speeds upwards of 100 miles per hour. More recently, hyperloop technology was included in the recently passed infrastructure package, making the company eligible for federal funding on future projects. 

In an ambitious promotional video, Virgin Hyperloop explains how it envisions its high-speed transportation system working in the future. Pods that will hold up to 28 passengers will travel at speeds surpassing 670 miles per hour — three times faster than high-speed rail and 10 times faster than traditional rail — using proprietary magnetic levitation and propulsion that guides the vehicles on the track. The pods will travel in convoys down the tube so they can head to different destinations.

 

The company has made some bold claims, betting its system will be more sustainable, cost-effective and convenient than presently available modes of transportation, leaving many skeptical about whether the plans will ever come to fruition as promised. 

Changing America talked to Giegel about his journey to revolutionize the way we travel. 

How were you first introduced to the hyperloop concept? 

I’m the son of two engineers so dorkiness runs very deep in the bloodstream. After grad school, I worked at SpaceX for a while then moved on from there after a few years to work in the waste heat-to-power sector. Around the same time the white paper had come out. 

I always kind of dreamed of starting a company, but you’re never really sure if you have an idea, or if there’s something you see that you could make better. But when the white paper came out contacts of mine reached out and were interested in starting a company. 

The opportunity was really interesting because I was really getting into the sustainability aspect. The company I ultimately left SpaceX for was a group working on sustainable power generation and the like. So when you look at transportation, you see this is a huge opportunity to make things more sustainable. It’s a technology challenge because no one’s ever built something like this before, so there’s an aspect of fun. It also has this third aspect that is really exciting, which is it’s going to be around long after we’re gone. We’re going to build something for future generations. I’m a dad now, we’ve got a little three-year-old, we’re going to build something that he’s ultimately going to ride. 

What made you start pursuing it seriously?

In the summer of 2014, I’d been talking with this group about starting the company and actually worked as part of the Virgin Orbit founding team. I kind of realized “oh man, I’ve already built rockets before, I don’t know if I’m going to learn all that much.” The hyperloop idea was just becoming really exciting. I had a conversation with a mentor of mine who said if you want to do something, “burn the boats.” If you want to take the shore, burn the boats, don’t wade into the pool, go all in. 

I remember having the conversation with my wife when we were going to a bar and stopping in the middle of a crosswalk and her telling me I was delusional, but she was still supportive. 

But we’re going on seven years now and it’s been a journey of incredible learning, incredible opportunity. 

What has the support of Virgin enabled you to do? 

Their brand is about the user and passenger experience. One of the things that’s fascinating when you think about a new mode of transportation is how do you get people on it? If you’re talking about an autonomous car, what’s one word you would want to use to describe it? You’d probably want it to be comfortable or safe. But you also want it to be approachable. You don’t want it to be like the T-1000 driving down the road. You want to walk up to it and learn about it. So we can take the lessons Virgin has learned about building an incredible passenger and user experience and incorporate it into this new product. They have this idea of how to make people engage with your piece of technology and humanize it. 

Tell me about the technology. What makes it different from a maglev — magnetic levitation — train in terms of infrastructure and potential? 

When you also look around the world, there’s something that is really almost omnipresent, which is a vehicle on a road. And what’s the characteristic of this vehicle on the road? It’s this idea that a road is very simple. It has no moving parts, and a car can be very smart. So, the same road a Model T could drive on one hundred years ago a Tesla Model 3 could drive on today. 

What we started working on over the last few years is this idea of “smart pod, dumb tube.” Instead of having switches that move like a train, we just have things that act like an off-ramp so if the pod [the vehicle passengers ride in] wants to get off and take people to a certain city it just pulls off by turning on an electromagnet. So you can now have a really high-capacity system without all these safety risks associated with track-switching. 

You put the pod inside of a tube, you take most of the air out, you have a very low energy consumption, you actually make it inherently safer, you make it weatherproof, and you can move as many people as a 30-lane highway in the space of a tube going each direction. It’s all from this foundational premise that we created: new propulsion, new levitation, new batteries, new ways of working all these things together to make a “smart pod, dumb tube,” so a pod one hundred years from now could ride in the same tube we build today. 

How could hyperloop change how people live?

I think it’s going to open a degree of possible that just was never there. Right now it takes maybe 30 minutes or longer to get across uptown Manhattan in rush hour. You look at going from Kansas City to St. Louis, that’s three-and-a-half hours in a car, that’s not something you do on a daily basis. You can now connect those two cities faster than you can currently get across uptown Manhattan. 

People are really conscious about the environmental footprint of transportation. They’re taking more aggressive measures in Europe, such as banning short-haul flights in France and telling people to take the train. But what that’s doing is actually making it more inconvenient for people to travel. So I think hyperloop is going to give us that flexibility to say we can have the environmental benefits without having to sacrifice speed or convenience. 

Hyperloop was included in the recently passed infrastructure bill. What does it mean for you?

This one was big. In a town that sometimes can be paralyzed by gridlock, we had a lot of support from both sides of the aisles. 

The takeaway is that there’s interest in the technology from all places around the world, there’s interest in making sure it’s safe, there’s recognition that this is going to happen soon. This isn’t decades away, this is something that’s going to be happening over the next couple of years.

We’re now being considered in the same way very established modes of transportation like rail are being considered and are able to compete in the same way they are. Level the playing field and I think we’ll win on our merits and what we’re trying to do, and that’s really what this bill did, it made us eligible for that. It also helped us codify who the body is that will actually be a regulatory which was a bit of an uncertainty. 

What’s the timeline like? When can I buy a ticket to ride? 

What we set out to do last year was show the technology could be made safe. That culminated in myself and one of my colleagues Sara riding on a prototype in November. I think that allayed a lot of concerns about whether we can make it safe. 

The next level is getting approved by an independent body and commercializing the technology. We’re in the process of building our commercial technology now, which are these 25 to 30 passenger pods. 

We’ll begin to look at pilot projects that will move cargo first, so think of shorter projects starting around the 2024 through 2026 timeframe. At the same time we’ll be getting independent safety approval needed to get a product certified for passengers. And then ultimately from there go into building the projects out from 2026 through the rest of the decade. So you’ll be looking at the decade of hyperloop, starting with Sara and I riding on it and ending with, I’m hoping, billions of passengers riding, but I will settle for tens, if not hundreds, of millions of passengers in the U.S. and around the world. 

What do you say to critics who say the technology is untested?

We are building something that has only been conceptual. You couldn’t have built a hyperloop like we’re building today five years ago, you couldn’t have built it, certainly, 25 years ago. And we’re doing it, we’re doing it one step at a time and we’re actually showing that it’s going to get there. 

Everybody had seen a rocket go up, but no one had ever seen one land before. Now, rockets that don’t land are weird. We’ve seen cars for a long time, but everybody thought the electric car could not possibly be economically viable. You’re seeing electrical vertical takeoff and landing planes. You’re seeing all these different things that seem like science fiction not all that long ago actually become real because the different pieces of technology are working. 

I’ll say six years ago nobody thought we could build a company, nobody thought we could raise money, two-years ago, nobody thought you could actually show people could be safe in this. I think what I would just tell people if they’re skeptical, just wait and see. 

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Published on Sep 01, 2021