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Interview - “Ten times safer than an airplane”: This man is working with Elon Musk on the super train of the future

“Ten times safer than an airplane”: This man is working with Elon Musk on the super train of the future

Dirk Ahlborn is the head of “Hyperloop Transportation Technologies” in Los Angeles. With his 800 employees from all over the world, he continues to pursue Elon Musk's idea of ​​a super express train in a vacuum tunnel.

The man lives in another world. Not just because he is at home in California. Dirk Ahlborn's business is both a vision and a reality. A vision that was created by none other than Tesla and SpaceX boss Elon Musk: the Hyperloop. A magnetic levitation train that speeds from city to city in a vacuum tube at a speed of 1200 kilometers per hour. Dirk Ahlborn is the head of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, based in Los Angeles. A Hyperloop test track is currently being built in Toulouse and Ahlborn's company plans to build commercial Hyperloop tracks in Abu Dhabi and China over the next few years.

What happened to Elon Musk's idea of ​​a hyperloop?

Dirk Ahlborn: The Hyperloop was introduced by Elon Musk in 2013 as an alternative to a planned high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. This train called the "Bullet Train" would have been the most expensive and slowest super express train in the world. The project has just stopped. Musk said to himself at the time, we're doing something better, the Hyperloop. But Musk had enough to do with Tesla and SpaceX, so he wanted someone else to pursue this idea. Back then we were the first company to work on the Hyperloop.

The idea of ​​a maglev train wasn't new.

Musk's idea of ​​a hyperloop even dates back to the 18th century. In the 1990s, work was carried out on the Swiss Metro project in Switzerland. A project very similar to ours. Swiss Metro planned with a relatively large maglev train that would have run under negative pressure. We have optimized the whole thing and made it cheaper.

Many such rapid transit projects have failed. Why?

The failed projects were always dependent on a company or a government. Governments change, budgets change and then such a project is over. We had to do it differently: we didn't just found a company, we founded a movement. We are now over 800 employees in 52 multidisciplinary teams and work with 50 companies and universities. The employees and companies contribute their knowledge in return for participation in the company.

That means without a salary?

All employees have a stake in the company in return. Many of these employees are already millionaires, at least on paper. But that's a start-up's risk. It can be over by tomorrow. The 800 employees are organized in teams of two to seven people. This has the huge advantage that the innovation can go into different areas and that you work with people who are specialized.

Which projects is your company working on specifically?

We have 14 international contracts in different countries. Two of them for commercial routes in Abu Dhabi and China. In Toulouse we have now built the first 320 meters of Hyperloop. The first passenger capsule, which has just been completed in Spain, will operate there. From a company that otherwise builds aircraft parts. The capsule is constructed similarly to an airplane.

What is the state of these commercial routes?

In Abu Dhabi we will start with a Hyperloop stretch of five kilometers. In China we are initially planning ten kilometers, this route will then be extended to just over 100 kilometers. The biggest hurdles for the Hyperloop are regulation and safety guidelines. We worked with Munich Re and the reinsurer announced last year that it was able to insure the technology. This is a very, very big milestone in the commercialization of the system. And the certification institute TÜV Süd will put together a set of safety regulations that we will pass on to our partners in order to create a standard for the construction of a hyperloop in the various countries.

What time frame are we talking about?

In Abu Dhabi, it will take just under three years to get started. Then it depends on how quickly the set of rules comes into being. Therefore, it will take a few more years for commercial use.

How safe is a hyperloop?

The system itself is ten times safer than an airplane. The only possible problem is the negative pressure in the vacuum tunnel. If something happens, you have to adjust the negative pressure in the tunnel and then people can leave the tunnel via the emergency exits.

Still, it's not for everyone to travel in a closed capsule.

You are also in a closed cabin in a subway. But we have developed technologies that make it all easier: Virtual Skylines. The sky is simulated and the area around the train route is displayed in virtual windows. Cameras see where the passenger is looking. An optical vision arises there, as if the passenger were looking out of the window. Virtual reality without glasses, so to speak.

What are the most important technical improvements in recent years?

In vacuum technology. It used to be much more expensive and it took more energy to maintain the vacuum in the tunnel. They benefited from the developments at CERN. Then the batteries have been upgraded. A few years ago they would have been far too difficult. Those are the two most important factors.

The top speed of the hyperloop will really be 1200 kilometers per hour?

Yes, just below the sound limit. It doesn't get any faster because it becomes much more difficult when you get to the sound limit.

Are you selling the Hyperloop as an alternative to air traffic, which is currently being discussed?

Many dread flying. But we are solving another problem. No train or subway is profitable today, they all depend on subsidies. The feasibility studies show that the Hyperloop can be profitable within 8 to 15 years. Thanks to very low operating and maintenance costs.

Faster than an airliner

The futuristic transport system Hyperloop is a high-tech vacuum train with which travelers can travel from city to city at up to 1223 kilometers per hour in windowless cabins. The pressure conditions in the vacuum tubes are similar to those in space. Coils in the rails as well as magnets and batteries in the train enable the Hyperloop to hover and accelerate. The passengers are sent by pneumatic tube, so to speak. The journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles on the Hyperloop would take 36 minutes. Hyperloop Transformation Technologies calculates that 164,000 people could be transported on a Hyperloop route every day. (kn.)

Free?

Our vision goes there. I believe that the business model can be changed. And monetizes the time the passenger spends in the vehicle. It's not just about advertising on the train, it's about services and data. I take the example of video games as an explanation.

What is this?

When I was a kid I was allowed to buy video games, they were quite expensive. My kids usually get the games for free these days, but the video game companies still make ten times what they did when I was young. It's a different way of monetization: through advertising, through upgrades, and through services. This is a rethinking of the business model. In the 19th century it was said that the best way to make money is to sell a ticket. We got stuck there. But if you can cut your hair on the train, the Hyperloop operator earns from the hairdresser and not from the ticket.