An ultra high-speed hyperloop—personal transportation pods whizzing through skyscrapers and sand dunes faster than an airplane—might soon become a reality here in Dubai.
In recent weeks, the hyperloop has gone from a concept touted by Elon Musk to something realistically achievable within the next five years in a city that is fittingly futuristic, partly because of the government's push for the system. As other centers of innovation grapple with uncertain politics, this young city in the United Arab Emirates is resolutely building on ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum's vision to be "the world's most innovative city, within seven years." (You might remember that Peter Diamandis, founder of the XPrize and several space companies, said he would also be on board with the plans last year).
Hyperloop One—one of the leading global companies focused on translating Musk's plans into reality—recently announced that it is working on building a transport system that can cut the travel time between Dubai and UAE capital, Abu Dhabi to twelve minutes. Currently it takes approximately 90 minutes to cover those 65-odd miles.
The company is closely collaborating with the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) in a partnership facilitated by the Dubai Future Foundation,a government-backed 'matchmaker' for innovators and investors. Colin Rhys, creative director at Hyperloop One told Motherboard, "This project is our number one priority at the moment. A Hyperloop project requires big vision, and we've found that here."
The prototype being built right now is a bit more utilitarian than utopian, enabling only point-to-point travel between Hyperports, i.e. pod-train stations, initially. It is likely, however, to be the first functional Hyperloop system in the coming years. With estimated speeds of 1,100 kilometers per hour, it will be about 200 km/h faster than flying.
The project, which is being designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group—the people behind Two World Trade Centre in New York—is set to bring about a paradigm shift when it comes to human transportation, and indeed, our perception of time itself. Described as 'broadband for humans', the ultimate goal for the hyperloop is not just to be able to cover previously inconceivable distances in record times, but to provide personalized connectivity.
The stakeholders are hoping this mode of travel will let people have more meetings or attend social events they would otherwise miss. Hyperloop One's vision is to have individual passenger pods enable door-to-door transportation that integrates with existing roadways, to provide completely autonomous mobility.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi are both emerging economies and widely seen as global hubs for business in the Middle East. Both cities have rapidly diversifying economies, and many residents live and work in the neighboring cities, often enduring hours-long daily commutes.
Rhys said the challenge isn't the technology, but rather the cost of the system architecture, which they aim to make low enough to have the ticket price on par with any other public transport option. "It is not meant to be a luxury," he said.
Apart from the cost factor, the other main obstacle is the regulatory environment. This is where the partnership with Dubai's transportation agency becomes key. Saif Al Aleeli, CEO of the Dubai Future Foundation, said Dubai aims to have 25 percent of all transportation become driverless by 2030.
"This is our first project to build a model of a futuristic city," he said.
Hyperloop One is also developing a Hyperloop cargo transport system in Dubai Port, the main seaport in Dubai, (backed by DP World, the port's authority) as a parallel project. DP World has reportedly invested $50 million (convertible notes) in Hyperloop One, which has already seen three rounds of funding from global investors.
Plus, in October there was a large-scale international Hyperloop design competition, Build Earth Live, where teams from all around the world participated. The 48-hour competition, which was won by French team Mobius, required the six selected finalist participants to design a Hyperloop link between Dubai and Fujairah (another emirate in the UAE) for passengers and cargo.
Read More: The Hyperloop Industrial Complex
Dubai has also very recently announced an intra-city hyperloop to serve the Expo 2020 venue (which is in Jebel Ali, on the city borders), which route is likely to be extended to complete the circuit to Abu Dhabi thereafter. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi's Department of Municipal Affairs and Transport (DMAT) has just commissioned Hyperloop TT (Hyperloop Transportation Technologies) to undertake a feasibility study of a hyperloop route between the capital city and Al Ain, a smaller town in the same emirate.
As a city that has always had a 'build it and they will come' attitude, and Dubai has proven that it likes its superlatives. Being home to the world's first active Hyperloop could be their next trophy.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.