While billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Robert Bigelow, and Richard Branson are racing to space in the skies above the Western United States, a different sort of technological rivalry is playing out on the ground, and below, as Musk and Branson move forward with competing visions for high-speed, terrestrial transportation systems that could ultimately outpace the fastest trains in Japan, China, and Europe.
A few years ago, Musk put forth the initial idea for a hyperloop—a high-speed, solar-powered transportation system that would shoot passengers in a vacuum tube from point A to point B at hundreds of miles per hour—and released the preliminary concept as an open-source project. Companies have since begun to race to turn his quixotic vision into reality: Musk himself is developing hyperloop-related technology through his newest venture, a tunnel-building project he calls the Boring Company, though his progress in California seems to be stalled until he can dig any further into the city of Los Angeles than the SpaceX parking lot, and he appears to be more focused on more pragmatic means of conveyance. Last week, Capital News Service reported that Musk has secured a conditional permit to “begin digging two parallel, 12.4-mile transportation tunnels in January 2018” in Baltimore, likely using a slower, Minority Report-like technology that would transport cars on electric sleds. Branson, meanwhile, is doubling down on the original concept. In September, his Virgin Group helped lead an $85 million fund-raising round in Hyperloop One, which has since rebranded as Virgin Hyperloop One. Now, Branson has increased his involvement with the company, which has raised an additional $50 million in new funding and agreed to add Branson as its chairman, Axios reports.
Virgin Hyperloop One has encountered its share of roadblocks as it works to build out Musk’s vision of a supersonic mass-transit system. Last summer its co-founders sued each other amid allegations of nepotism and threats of violence. And while the company celebrated its first successful test of its system this summer, its hyperloop vehicle only traveled at about a tenth of the 700 miles-per-hour speed it eventually plans to achieve. The new cash infusion was necessary, Axios reports, as Virgin Hyperloop One had been running low on funds.
Virgin Hyperloop One’s new funding is also strategic: the company’s new funding comes from Dubai’s DP World and Russia’s Caspian Venture Capital, which, Axios notes, lets the company keep ties with the Middle East and Russia, two parts of the world where it hopes to ink contracts next year. One elephant in the room is the involvement of co-founder Shervin Pishevar, one of the co-chairs Branson will replace at Virgin Hyperloop One. Pishevar, who was a party in last summer’s legal battle, resigned from the company’s board earlier this month amid a number of allegations of sexual harassment not related to the company. (Pishevar has denied any wrongdoing.) The other lingering question for both Musk and Branson’s endeavors is the feasibility of hyperloop technology. The land rights necessary to build a hyperloop track on private and public land, for instance, could be a major headache, and the estimated costs are staggering—not to mention the provisions necessary to ensure safety when human beings in pod-like contraptions are traveling at the speed of sound. Accelerating cars on tunnel tracks may be the slower, safer option until the concept is proven.
This story originally appeared on Vanity Fair.
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