Hyperloop One impresses investors with speeding sled test in Nevada desert

Hyperloop was put to the test for the first time in Las Vegas desert. Investors say they're happy with what they saw.

Futuristic transportation firm shows it's 'onto something' in just four seconds

The metal sled and track used to test Hyperloop One's electromagnetic propulsion system. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

In the desert about 45 minutes north of the Las Vegas Strip, surrounded by Joshua trees and cacti, is a metal track. It runs a couple of hundred metres long and at one end is a three-metre metal sled. Hundreds of people watch from stands in the hot Nevada sun, waiting to see the sled move.

Those who designed and built the track call it their pre-Kitty Hawk moment; as momentous, claims Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd, as the moments before the Wright Brothers pointed their Flyer into the wind. 

"That Kitty Hawk moment," he tells the crowd, "it's going to happen. And we then imagine how we're going to take this technology and solve the world's toughest problems."

Hyperbole? The investors watching in the stands hope not. What they're about to see is the first open-air test of hyperloop technology.

Elon Musk, founder of electric car giant Tesla Motors, dreamed up the idea: put passengers into a pod, stick that pod in a metal tube, make it levitate, then fire it down the tube at 1,200 km/h. 

Crazy, right? Not according to Shervin Pishevar, who co-founded Hyperloop One.

Hyperloop One says it hopes to test a hyperloop inside a tube by the end of the year. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"We're actually building," he says. "It's not just slides or talk. We've built the components for the propulsion system and that's a pretty big piece of the whole solution."

That's what they are here to test: the propulsion system. There's no tube, no levitation, only the track on which sit slim white columns — electromagnets that will power the sled. 

In the control centre, engineers count down: "Three, two, one, start!"

The sled rockets forward, reaching a speed of about 190 km/h. After about four seconds, it plows into the sand and comes to a stop. Everyone claps.

Hyperloop co-founder Brogan BamBrogan takes the microphone. Despite the powerful acceleration forces, he promises the ride will be smooth.

"So when you think of passengers travelling on this, we can control the acceleration so you won't feel any more acceleration than an airplane taking off," he says. 

An outsider might come away from this test underwhelmed. But CEO Rob Lloyd — a Canadian — says passing this hurdle means Hyperloop One is well on its way to having a fully functional hyperloop to test by the end of the year.

"And when we complete it, we're looking at the world right now to say, 'Where can we build this in a meaningful way?'" Lloyd says. "We're asking Canadians, 'Is there a problem we can solve in Canada? Is there a route we should be looking at?'"

Many current and potential investors say they were impressed with what they saw Wednesday. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Several other companies are developing their own hyperloops and the competition for investors is stiff. On Tuesday, Hyperloop One announced $80 million in new financing.

Wednesday's test may have gone a long way to impressing investors like Lorraine Jackson. 

"It's fantastic," she says. "Exciting. Futuristic. I would definitely like to invest in this — I have invested — and I think it's the future." 

Shahril Ibrahim, who represents a Malaysian government wealth fund called Khazanah, says he's been tracking the company for some time. The test, he says, surprised him.

"It was very impressive," Ibrahim says. "They're a lot further than we thought they were. So I think they're onto something."

Lloyd says hyperloops will be in production within the next five years. The company hopes to carry cargo by 2019, and its first passengers two years later.


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.


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