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Bjarke Ingels on Hyperloop One, and the global future of high-speed transit

We talked with Ingels and partner Jakob Lange about Hyperloop’s implications worldwide

BIG’s proposed Hyperloop One would connect Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Here, a donut-shaped “portal” (or station) for passengers, designed by BIG, is seen at bottom center.
Images courtesy Bjarke Ingels Group

Though the deep ideological divisions dragged into the light by the recent U.S. presidential election aren’t likely to be resolved quickly, there is one thing about which most people seem to agree: the need for serious investment in the nation’s infrastructure.

What shape any such investment will take under the incoming administration—and what kinds of infrastructure, exactly, will be prioritized—is anyone’s guess, though there have been some hints in recent days.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reports that such investments are critical in all “essential infrastructure,” from bridges to airports to railways. And the organization’s most recent infrastructure report card handed out a paltry D+ to the U.S. for its infrastructure.

A Hyperloop One tube could run from Dubai to Abu Dhabi.

But what about more futuristic modes of transit? Could we get our own Hyperloop—the pressurized-tube transportation system proposed by Tesla cofounder Elon Musk? A Hyperloop would, for example, make travel between New York and Washington, D.C. faster and more efficient (and maybe safer and cheaper, too).

We talked to architect Bjarke Ingels, founder and creative partner of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) as well as his partner, and head of BIG ideas, Jacob Lange—who developed the ideas for Hyperloop One—to chat about what can be done to better such a score.

Give me the concept of Hyperloop One in one line.

Bjarke Ingels: It’s a system that combines the cargo carrying capacity of shipping with the speed of flight, with the energy efficiency of rail—all with the individual freedom of the private car.

So the Hyperloop One is a mobility ecosystem of autonomous pods and portals that link Dubai and Abu Dhabi. How this work. And could it work in the US?

Jakob Lange: The original Hyperloop concept contained a bigger capsule for transporting larger groups of people through the system.We have designed smaller autonomous vehicles—pods—that can house between six and eight people.

The advantage is a huge reduction in time to load the transporters. The big leap was to be able for the pods to pick passengers up from their home, bring them to the Hyperloop portal and directly into a transporter—solving the “last-mile” problem. Much like UberPool, the pods could also be ordered to pick up others sharing similar routes.

We have called the Hyperloop station a “portal,” as this means a gateway, rather than a “station,” which implies that it is stationary. Our system requires no waiting time.

Ingels:In fact we have eliminated the waiting room. We are bringing you something that’s completely obvious to navigate, it will be on-demand. And it will be like an Uber app with an elevator door that will tell you where to be picked up.

What will the experience be like inside a pod?

Ingels: We are able to fully customize it. There is an incredible variability that goes into the pods: Right now we are studying different designs and what their layouts [would be]. So right now we are playing with it being more of a room, than inside a vehicle. One could be in more of a group meeting situation, or a lounge situation.

What are the transporter’s top travel speeds?

Lange: The transporter will go at a speed of up to 745 miles per hour which is just below the speed of sound, and faster than an airplane. Hyperloop One has been carrying out a huge amount of research to optimize existing technology so they can be mass produced and affordable to build. This is key to the project being successful.

In February the company will carry out a test in Las Vegas with a transporter that can do 430 miles per hour.

Do you see this project working in other cities? And do you feel the older and more complex infrastructure of American or European cities makes it harder to implement these autonomous transport systems?

Ingels: We are looking all over the world—from the south (Sydney to Melbourne), to the Middle East and beyond.

Lange: We are already doing a great deal of work on portals in Helsinki and Stockholm and this is expanding on the story. When you deal with older cities you have to think of other ways to fit this in the urban structure. So this could mean building underground tunnels, or over water, or on pylons above the ground.

Coming from the world of architecture, how exciting is it to work on such futuristic transport projects? And what do you feel a company like BIG brings to the table?

Lange: Transportation design tends to build on existing knowledge. Architects are normally curators of buildings, landscapes, and cities. We get input from our clients, the engineers, the city, the neighbors, and future users, and take all this information and design buildings that aim at solving as many of these challenges as possible. At BIG this is one of our most important generators for our designs, which is instrumental to a project like Hyperloop One where we focus on making the design adaptable to future technologies.

The proposed interiors of the Hyperloop One “portal.”
Image courtesy Bjarke Ingels Group

What is the timescale for the project?

Ingels: This is a journey that can take off in Dubai in 2020 to 2022 for Qatar, and then Saudi Arabia and beyond.

Lange: Initially it will be moving cargo around until it has been tested and declared safe enough to transport people. Development of new technologies like the Hyperloop is happening faster and faster.

Ten years ago Elon Musk he said that he would reinvent space travel and today SpaceX is delivering cargo to the international space station and are landing their rockets safely on the ground afterwards. If you just push and put money and thought behind a concept, you can challenge the speed of innovation.

What does this mean for the future of infrastructure and how can the U.S. learn from this?

Ingels: This is the beginning of a future where we are mentally transforming the map of not only our cities, but also our regions, and then the entire world. As our habitual understanding of proximity and distance and time and space is being warped by this sort of virgin form of travel.