When I told friends I was visiting a hyperloop company in Valencia, the most common response was, "That's still a thing?!"
Rest assured, the dream of a people-carrying pod propelled by air in a tube is still alive and well, and Valencia startup Zeleros is pushing the change forward.
Hyperloop transport is designed to carry people or cargo in pods or capsules travelling through low-pressure tubes at high speeds raised by magnetic levitation to reduce friction. The idea is to create a near-vacuum environment inside the tubes to minimise air resistance, allowing the pods to travel at high speeds (faster than maglev trains, between 800 to 1200 kmph).
Using a hyperloop, the 439-kilometre journey from Frankfurt to Amsterdam would take a mere 50 minutes — currently around 4 hours 26 minutes by car. Hyperloops promise unrivalled energy efficiency, for example, using only 10 percent of the energy needed for roads and aviation, and 50 percent less energy than rail.
Hyperloop transport is not new. But it came into public consciousness in 2013 — yep, ten years ago — when Elon Musk introduced the concept in a research paper that posited the Hyperloop as "a fifth mode of transport" after planes, trains, cars, and boats.
Space X sponsored The Hyperloop Pod Competition from 2015 to 2019. Teams competed to design — and, for some, build — a subscale prototype transport vehicle. Some of these teams have scaled to become fully functional startups with significant funding, including Zeleros, who won awards in the competition, Nevomo (Poland) and Hardt (Netherlands).
I laughed when the Zeleros co-founder Juan Vicen Balaguer shared a photo of the team, with Elon Musk in the background at the competition, stating, "Here is Elon Musk near us; he's a bit unapproachable…" Lol.
It follows that hyperloop tech has always been a case of smoke and mirrors.
Visiting Valencia, I did not witness a hyperloop in action, but bits of various prototypes and machinery (more on that later) and a small model a third of the size of an actual pod.
I've been writing about hyperloop tech for nearly ten years. There's a whole lot of spinning up of what the future will look like, including 3D models, illustrations and videos made in CGI. I got to see them again in a slide show presentation, and now you get to see them too. They haven't changed much.
Since hyperloop startups began appearing in 2010, besides those future forward graphics, most of the progress involves feasibility studies in specific regions, MOUs, and partnerships and efforts toward standardised regulations and operations. There are also testing facilities, as a huge amount of infrastructure must be built and maintained to precise standards to make hyperloops happen.
All of this is a vital part of creating a new form of public transport and paving the way for the capabilities of hyperloops at scale.
A tough time to be creating an entirely new mode of transport
But right now, it's a tough time to be experimenting with an entirely new form of transport that requires hundreds of millions to build and commercialise.
All of the hyperloop companies – Zeleros, Hardt (the Netherlands), Swisspod (Switzerland US), HyperloopTT (US), and Transpod (Canada) see collaboration and harmonisation as the only way we'll see people (or cargo-carrying) hyperloop in our new future.
We've only seen one tested hyperloop with actual passengers. In November 2020, Virgin Hyperloop successfully launched a two-seat prototype ridden by two staff members.
The hyperloop travelled 500 metres, reaching 172 kilometres per hour within 6.25 seconds.
Unsurprisingly, the test site had no hope of meeting the promised 600km/h that hyperloop advocates have long promised due to the track's limited length.
However, in February 2022, the company pivoted its focus to only freight, firing over half its total workforce. Since then, the company reverted to its OG name,
Hyperloop One, has no active website and hasn't been active on LinkedIn, where it calls itself H1, for 8 months. A very sad state of affairs for a company that raised $368.4 million in funding.
By comparison, its European contemporaries have raised far modest funds. Based on disclosed fundraising, Zeleros has raised around €22 million, Hardt €36.4 million, and Nevomo €13.7 million. It's a long way from $368.4 million.
EIT Climate-KIC provided one of the first financial supports to Zeleros in 2017. In 2019, Zeleros won the best EU company award from EIT. In 2021, InnoEnergy, a KIC from EIT, became an investor of Zeleros.
Where exactly can you expect to find a hyperloop?
Hyperloops promise to run between major cities (or ports and cities in the case of cargo), augmenting existing and future transport options.
Zeleros sees hyperloops integrating into existing high-speed rail stations, including unused or incomplete railway lines in Germany and Spain, rather than on specially purchased land.
It is, however, still being determined how many disused railways run through between cities that suit the location of a hyperloop.
There's also the question of who is the commercial customer if hyperloops are running through railways. Is there enough government investment to take a hyperloop through the rails, considering Europe has woefully neglected rail investment over the last decade.
Recent research from the German think tanks Wuppertal Institute and T3 Transportation. found the EU, Norway, Switzerland and the UK spent €1.5tn between 1995 and 2018 to extend their roads – but just €0.93tn to extend their rail networks.
In other words, for every €1 European governments spent building railways, they spent €1.6 building roads. Further, from 2018 - 2021, only Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the UK invested more in rail than roads. Not great for the future of off road transport like hyperloops.
So where are we at?
Zeleros joined forces with its contemporaries in February to launch the first International Hyperloop Association.
The European Hyperloop Center officially opened in Veendam, Groningen in October. It plans to install a 400-metre test track by summer 2024. – there's also a 320-metre test track in Toulouse, France, built by Hyperloop TT in 2019. A four-kilometre test track will be completed in Castilla la Mancha in 2025.
In May 2023, HyperloopTT won a bid for an €800 million project to build a three-phase, 10 km prototype in northern Italy, which could eventually lead to a commercial hyperloop connecting the cities of Venice and Padua. The Venetian Motorway Concession awarded funding for the project.
Currently, a legal framework for the hyperloop has yet to be defined on a European scale. The EU Commission planned to include the regulatory framework in its 2023 Work Programme but has rescheduled it for 2024, bringing another delay. That's not a lot of time to get things running by 2030.
Balaguer shared that "right now the challenge is not so much to certify passenger systems, since there are airplane cabins that operate at high speeds efficiently, the levitation, the propulsion and the launcher work all at once and at high speed.
Zerleros is looking to reach a speed of 600 km/h, requiring a track at least five kilometres long. Once successful, the company will scale to a 30-kilometre commercial system. This will provide an accurate test ground for passenger certification.
Generating necessary income through a commercial pivot
Honestly, the most interesting part of where we are right now is that while companies like Zerleros plan for a 2030 launch, they are savvy enough to recognise that the only way forward is through. As much as Zerleros is dedicated to developing the various components required for operational hyperloops, it's also focusing on adapting its technology to other high-performing sectors that can benefit from it.
For example, the company has developed SELF, a Sustainable that consists of a fully automated system of guided electric vehicles that can move containers in intra-port and port-to-hinterland operations with zero greenhouse emissions and high reliability.
Developed in conjunction with CIEMAT, it uses switched-reluctance linear electric motor technology. It's been used successfully in the Port of Sagunto, in Spain.
The company is also designing and prototyping a high-performance energy storage module for hyperloops, but also other high-power and high-energy electric mobility applications like aviation.
At worst, the hyperloop is a project envisioned by clever people that fails to commercialise. The innovation is not wasted and can and is already being used to benefit other modes of transport. On the optimistic end, Hyperloop technology promises a future characterised by rapid, eco-friendly, and cost-effective travel. Pinpointing the exact timeline of its realisation and awaiting its arrival will full certainty is a lot harder.
Lead image via Zeleros.