Interview: Bibop Gresta of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies
Imagine traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles, or between New York City and Washington DC, in just 30 minutes. Your trip has little to no carbon footprint and costs very little, because the company providing your travel makes its money from selling excess energy supplies created along the path you are traveling. Suddenly, problems created by commuting to jobs and housing shortages are far less of an issue. This is the dream of the Hyperloop.
WhiteHat Magazine sat down with Bibop Gresta, Chairman and co-founder of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) to discuss what the Hyperloop is all about.
The arrival of the Hyperloop would mean a transportation system that is integrated with the natural environment around it, is a net producer (instead of consumer) of energy, and operates on a business model that could mean passengers are not the main source of revenue. Overall, Bibop Gresta and his co-founder Dirk Ahlborn see a future of transportation that is efficient, sustainable, and available to everyone.
The interview transcript has been edited for clarity.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: Bibop Gresta, thank you so much for sitting down with us today.
[Bibop Gresta]: Pleasure.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: So, we’re going to talk about the Hyperloop.
[Bibop]: My favorite topic!
[WhiteHat Magazine]: I’d hope so! So tell me: What is the Hyperloop, and what is your role with it?
[Bibop]: I’m Bibop Gresta: Chairman, Co-Founder, and Chief Bibop Officer of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. The Hyperloop concept is a very advanced, but very simple idea. Imagine a capsule with a lot of people in it. And you put this capsule inside a tube. You evacuate the air from the tube, so there’s no resistance. At that point, you can actually move the capsule at almost the speed of sound, having very little resistance, and using very little energy.
It’s such a simple concept, but it’s also so advanced, right? Humanity has tried to build a Hyperloop several times during the past century.
The first attempt—known attempt—was in 1870, Alfred Ely Beach, a brilliant entrepreneur, tried to build the first Hyperloop under what would become the New York subway. And he actually built it—more than 400 meters of track between Warren and Broadway—and it was a pneumatic tube with a low-pressure environment. It was a very pre-modern Hyperloop. Now, this didn’t succeed for several reasons–politics and a big crisis. There was also a misconception that the Hyperloop would have basically damaged the car industry.
Again, something similar happened in 1904 when the amazing scientist Robert Goddard, father of rocket science, prepared a solution that was very similar to the Hyperloop, and that time it was stopped because the scientific community insurged against him, saying that human beings cannot travel above 100 miles per hour. And they were very clear illustrations on how the body would basically explode–scientifically demonstrated!
Over and over you see these examples of this idea popping up during the 19th century.
In 1969, the American government demonstrated four different designs, published in Popular Science. This included the Secretary of Transportation John Volpe, a very credible person, saying that tube travel would be the future of transportation, and he showed these designs. One was called “tube flight”; the other one was called a “gravity vacuum”, and it was really, really similar to a Hyperloop. So when Elon Musk published the white paper in 2013, he didn’t invent anything. He just showed to the world that that was possible, and it put a giant spotlight on that amazing possibility.
So what my business partner and I did–we just took the white paper, published it on our website (www.jobs.found), and did a call to action. The idea was of my business partner, Dirk Ahlborn, a genius entrepreneur I’ve had the pleasure to associate with on this amazing journey together. So he basically had the idea to say we are not going to do it all by ourselves. We do it by involving everybody who can help. So the call to action was a wide call out, and after a month, one hundred scientists signed up to join the team.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: After a month–100 scientists?
[Bibop]: Yes. And what happened, there were people from NASA, SpaceX, Tesla, Boeing, Everspace, Lockheed Martin–the best engineers on the planet. And everybody was saying the same thing: it’s doable. They analyzed every single element of the white paper. There were critics:“This has to be done in a different way.” I mean, Elon designed a possibility that was, you know, a draft of the possibility, but when we started to analyze it there were a lot of things to fix. And we did it.
So in the last years, we spent a lot of time of creating and testing technologies. And what it is the Hyperloop now? If you think of the Hyperloop as a superfast way to travel, you are missing the point. Because Hyperloop is not about speed.
Yes, it’s a nice byproduct–you can travel at the speed of sound. Wow, that’s amazing! But if you do it with the expenses of a system that is too expensive to maintain, it creates a giant black hole on the GDP of the nation you are building it in. Then instead of solving a problem, you’re creating another ten. And that’s how transportation right now is conceived worldwide. It’s broken.
So every transportation system on the ground that we have right now is subsidized by the state. These are a giant liabilities that our children, and the entire generation that will come, will carry that burden. I think it’s a broken way to see our planet and to see our future.
The point of the Hyperloop is about efficiency. So yes, we go fast. But in the way we conceive in the energy production, and the way we conceive propulsion levitation, there’s the key to launch something that for the first time is sustainable and can produce up to 30% more electricity than it consumes.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: Wow!
[Bibop]: That’s a wow! I love your wow. Because that’s exactly what I did when I saw the data. It’s freaking changing the history of transportation, when you have a system that can be so efficient! Let me explain in a second how we do it.
When you create a system that is built on pylons, it can be more efficient for a lot of reasons. It can be earthquake resistant. We can build islands that resist 9.2 on the Richter scale–30,000 PSI of resistance. If you’re a technical engineer you know what I’m talking about; if not, it’s a lot. It’s a lot. It’s like Burj Al Arab sitting on a pylon. That per pylon means that you can build a system that doesn’t have a lot of impact on the ground, but can actually transport up to seven tubes at a time. So you can scale up for a different generation of travel ahead. But efficiency is also created with the combinations of renewable energy that we adopt in our Hyperloop. So we use solar panels, wind, geothermal, then we looked also at several other combinations. For example, when solar panels are not efficient, we use geothermal in cold climates, for example.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: So you go down through the pylons for geothermal energy. That’s very cool.
[Bibop]: Yeah, you just go two kilometers down and you can harvest up to 5 kilowatts per pylon. And it’s a very cheap solution that can be used anywhere.
And then you can harvest energy when the capsule is moving–it generates electricity, so why don’t we harvest that too? We can do regenerative braking that can actually produce electricity. So, we are combining different technologies, and with this, we can actually achieve our goal to produce up to 30% more electricity than we consume.
The rest of the system is also based on efficiency–for example, our levitation propulsion system. We didn’t invent anything. We just acquired the technology that was used for a different purpose. But was already there, since the 90s.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: What was the original purpose of that?
[Bibop]: The technology was designed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the most famous labs in America, and the goal of the technology, in the beginning, was to stabilize bullets inside of cannons.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: Oh, wow.
[Bibop]: I will never, you know, use the same terminology, but if you think of it we are a bullet inside a giant cannon.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: Haha, it’s just a giant bullet?
[Bibop]: Nobody likes to be shot out of a cannon, but that’s figuratively what we are doing.
The technology is called Inductrack, and it’s amazingly efficient. Why? Because if you see how levitation is achieved right now in any transportation system, they all use active levitation. That means they use magnets that need electricity. Nothing wrong with that, but the problem is that to build systems that are actually efficient transportation systems, it becomes complicated because you have miles and miles of electrified track that need maintenance and a very high consumption of energy. And it’s also not really safe because if for some reason the electricity goes down, you have a lot of problems in stabilizing the cabin.
Shanghai Rail was in our office a bit ago, and they said they had to slow down three times since they opened, due to safety reasons. So we saw, again, that these systems are the best solution they found, but they are not the safest way to travel on the ground. And honestly, that system is antiquated.
I mean, if you only consider how rail systems are developed worldwide… Do you want to know why the standard gauge is 1.348 meters? Did you ever wonder why 70% of the rail on this planet has that size between one side of the rail and the other? Weird.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: That is weird. Why is that?
[Bibop]: It goes back to how we were building roads. The first rail built in the nineteenth century was in the UK, and the measurements that were used to build roads were also used to build the first rail. Why do we have roads that are this wide and used these instruments? It’s very easy: the Roman chariot.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: The design of our rail systems goes back to the Roman Empire?
[Bibop]: Yes. Humanity designed roads because they had to accommodate two horses side by side, so when you look at it, the most advanced transportation system that we have right now– high-speed rail–is designed off the butt of two horses.
[Editor’s Note: Snopes has examined this bit of trivia and labeled it “Partly true, but for trivial and unremarkable reasons.”]
[Bibop]: If you consider that if you build these two rails 30 to 40 centimeters wider, you can have double the freight and double the passengers, and you can do it so it is safer, less risk of derailment, and so on, you have to ask, “Why are we not doing it?”
[WhiteHat Magazine]: Why are we doing this the same way we’ve been doing it for ages?
[Bibop]: The problem is related to the model. These [transportation systems] are all subsidized by the state, and the problem is they don’t need to innovate. Now there is a problem: the Hyperloop is coming. They need to innovate.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: That actually leads into my next question: How are you going to deal with government regulation of transportation? Transportation is an incredibly regulated industry, from cars to planes.
[Bibop]: Regulation is good. We need regulation. But, you know, when you’re dealing with industries that have different principles and start from a different point of view, then you start to see that [the Hyperloop is] probably in need of a specific regulation. We are not a train; we are not a car; we are not an airplane. We are a Hyperloop. We are a tube-travel system. So we need to design a new regulation, and actually, we are talking with several entities. I had the pleasure to meet Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, and we started the first conversation about this new regulation. We also have the pleasure of partnering with TÜV, one of the most important global regulation entities.
First, we are creating a certification to comply with, and even better, because we can be ten times safer than the actual regulation.
To give you a little data, the flight industry has a coefficient of 0.007 accidents per hundred million passenger miles. That means that an airplane is supposed to fall down every 3.75 years. We don’t think that’s acceptable. This is not a safe way to look at regulation. So we are creating regulation that is ten times safer and more efficient than the one existing.
We are on the verge of a brand new era for transportation, and we are excited to be the disruptor.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: So how much do you expect a Hyperloop line to cost to build? Or cost for a passenger to ride on it, say from Salt Lake City to LA?
[Bibop]: So to answer your first question seriously, I’d have to ask where. Imagine that I can build it in Switzerland, and I will have to build an incredible amount of tunnels and bridges and so on. Or I can build it in a desert where I maybe need some pylon, but maybe not. So, it depends on where you’re building.
I can give you a rough estimate based on a feasibility study we did around the world. We are looking at about an average of $20 to 40 million per mile.
It is probably four to six time less than the cost of high-speed rail, depending on where you’re basing your calculation. Because if you’re comparing our cost to the high-speed rail in California, for example, that is a very easy comparison because that has become the most expensive, slowest-built rail ever built by humans. And honestly, I don’t have any clue why we are doing that, but we are paying with our tax money.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: Meanwhile, HTT is doing a test in Quay Valley, or at least you’re trying to.
[Bibop]: It’s not a test–it’s a full-scale prototype. Our test took place in 2015. We have a technology that is already being tested through Livermore Labs, and we using track built by General Atomics in the 90s. So propulsion levitation has been already tested and proven. What we are building now is a full-scale passenger version. It will be a short segment of a larger Los Angeles-San Francisco line that will be built in the future to run along I-5.
As you said, well, if they allow us to build, because we filed a conditional permit in January 2016, and we still have yet to receive permission, even though we have time spent a lot of money in environmental study and pylon alignment. Honestly, now we have negotiations open with 19 countries that have the political will to actually make it happen. So, I mean, if California doesn’t move, we aren’t waiting. Progress doesn’t wait.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: One of the countries that you’re actually working with now is Slovakia. Tell me a little bit about that project there.
[Bibop]: We have been fascinated immediately by the enthusiasm, the support, and the amazing ecosystem that exists in Slovakia. Slovakia, not a lot of people know, leads the European community in several verticals that are particularly interesting for us. For example, they lead car manufacturing. A lot of the big manufacturers in Europe go there to produce their cars. They have an amazing engineering workforce with backgrounds in composites and material design. They have the best universities, and also the price for all the engineers there is pretty cheap if you compare it. And the quality is amazing.
So the government is backing up a very big project there that can be the start of a major infrastructure project. We can start here and then go all over Europe. This area, to make your readers understand what I’m talking about, is the area that covers the Czech Republic, Poland, Austria, and Slovakia. They are four conglomerates that together have a GDP higher than California. Now, it’s particularly interesting for us, because this is also the last stop of the mythical Silk Road, which is now becoming very real because Russia and China are pushing to build along this. So, again, it is a connection, a segment of a larger structure that we can build to Russian and China.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: And go all the way through Asia.
[Bibop]: Yes. Exactly.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: What other countries are you looking to expand to?
[Bibop]: I can’t go into details right now, but there has been a lot of press along my travels and of course, you know, I’ve been speaking with several presidents and prime ministers around the world. Of course, all the Asian countries, they’re interested; and Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, India, China, several of them have already publicly disclosed projects. They are starting with us. So we have these nineteen country negotiations, and you will hear several more announcements.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: And you’ve also been talking with some people here in Utah’s government. Is that correct?
[Bibop]: Oh, that’s particularly exciting, because from the beginning Utah’s been amazingly receptive. I met several institutional figures here, and they told me all the same thing: We need a Hyperloop in Utah. And Utah is the perfect state because we have the political will, the money, and the resources to create an ecosystem around here.
It’s particularly interesting because imagine the tradition of heavy industries that are present in this region. Copper–for us it’s a fundamental element. Graphene–it can completely revolutionize the way we produce the cement. With ultra-high performance concrete, you can create a graphene concrete that has characteristics that were unimaginable before. Also in the composite area, Utah has several institutional factories in the expertise that we need.
The entire area between Salt Lake City and Park City is really in need of a more efficient solution to transport people. Especially because you need something that is reliable and can’t be water-dependent. I know what happens when it starts to snow and it’s crazy.
The loop, with what we have, it is an amazing, delicate ecosystem. I’ve seen deer dying along the highway because they cannot migrate anymore. This is something that we need to stop. We need to stop trying to solve one problem by creating another. I think the Hyperloop has the amazing possibility to bring to Utah an efficient, sustainable, and very profitable way to transport people. And I know that you’re trying to compete to have the Winter Olympics here. This could be an amazing boost to win the bid.
I can’t tell you anything more right now, but there’s a very serious discussion.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: Well, good to hear that there is even a discussion going on. Good luck with that.
[Bibop]: Thank you.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: So I have a couple more questions for you today. One, just quickly, is about security. I mean, everybody who flies knows that airport security in the U.S. is inefficient–
[WhiteHat Magazine]: Yeah. How are you gonna keep the Hyperloop safe?
[Bibop]: Well, doing better than what we have right now is not that complicated. We have technology that allows us to do way better. Security and safety was, from the beginning, our obsession. We hired the best engineers on that topic, and we are developing standards with TÜV that are way better. We’re talking about ten times the action standards.
The system we are designing has to completely reshape the passenger experience, from the moment you push the button in an app in your home, to the moment you arrive at a destination, you need to have a completely different passenger experience. You need to get rid of all this friction–you know, 70% of things you do at the station can be done even before you arrive there. Everyone seems to know where you’re going except your luggage, and you discover it has been promptly delivered to Botswana while you’re waiting in Los Angeles.
So when you arrive at the station you need to take into consideration two things. First, data mining can do a lot of the work of anti-terrorism even before you arrive. Then guaranteeing that people can enter capsules that depart every thirty seconds safely can be done using the latest technologies, like passive scanning.
You don’t need to do what you see at the airport right now. It’s not safe. If you 3D print a gun right now, you can pass through without being noticed. Several videos on the internet to show that, I don’t want to scare anybody, but that the reality. [Current airport security measures are] maybe a deterrent, but it’s not working.
From the moment the passenger arrives at the station you have to know who they are and also they are classified on the profile risk. That’s what we are doing. We are designing a station that is frictionless, that allow us to monitor and passively analyze and scan all the people arriving at the station and stop only the bad people. And we’re not saying it will be 100% safe, but imagine a system that can travel at the speed of sound, but then in case of emergencies stop in 6.4 seconds, having a deceleration of 5 g’s. Now, it’s not comfortable, but we will save the lives of those passengers.
We thought about every aspect of safety. The external perimeter with 24-hour monitoring drones, sensors, inspections. We have kevlar that can be sprayed on our pylons and make it one kiloton resistant. It means if an explosion happens it has to be superior of one kiloton to do some damage. I mean, if someone wants to do something, they will do it, but we’ve made their life difficult.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: My last question for you today: What is your vision long-term–and maybe near term also–for the future of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies?
[Bibop]: The Hyperloop is a reality, not future technology. We are building it. It’s happening.
I expect that after we build the first track, the entire Hyperloop ecosystem will come to life with several players–competition, we love competition. I foresee ten different companies doing Hyperloop, and I hope this is the future humanity will have, but it has to be based on the simply simple. We have to keep humanity safe, in an efficient and sustainable way to transport people.
For me, it’s important to create a system that is not just for the elite or for the rich. My goal is to create a system that can offer services for free in time slots that are low-density–maybe charge more in time slots that are dense–and basically try to rebalance the inequality that transportation has right now. All the effort of our team is concentrated on creating this. And I foresee a very, very amazing future.
[WhiteHat Magazine]: Well, good luck, I can’t wait to see it. Thank you for being here with us today. It was wonderful to talk with you.
[Bibop]: Thank you.
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