There are only a few man-made objects you can see from space. Dubai’s Port of Jebel Ali is one of them. As DP World’s flagship facility, Jebel Ali is one of the busiest and most productive ports in the world, with a handling capacity of 18 million TEUs (industry term for 20-foot-long containers). DP World expects to reach 19.5 million TEUs in 2017 at Jebel Ali and is on track to spend billions of dollars more to continue expanding capacity at Jebel Ali and its ports worldwide.
That’s the thing about global trade: It may ebb, but it never stops growing. Giant trade enablers such as DP World have to foresee long-term shifts in commerce flows and bet far in advance to meet the worldwide demand. In DP World’s case, that means looking for any efficiency or innovative technologies that can give it an edge across a portfolio of 77 marine and inland terminals on six continents.
Which brings us to the historic agreement signed yesterday between DP World and Hyperloop One. The two companies announced a deal to explore how Hyperloop technology could help move cargo quickly, safely and reliably from ships docked at Jebel Ali Port to a new container depot 29 kilometers inland. A dedicated Hyperloop tube with pods cycling through several times a minute can help DP World free up valuable space on the quay side and relieve Dubai’s roads of congestion. As an all-electric, emission-free technology, a Hyperloop cargo offloader would also eliminate a great deal of carbon emissions and other pollutants.
“This is about testing in real terms how much it costs and how much we can save because if it works in Dubai, we will do it in Africa, India and across Asia,” said Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, Group Chairman and CEO, DP World. “I believe in the Hyperloop. I believe it’s the future.”
Signing the agreement from Hyperloop One are board member Peter Diamandis, President of Engineering Josh Giegel, Executive Chairman Shervin Pishevar, and Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd. Second from right is DP World Chairman and CEO Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem.
Inland container ports, also known as dry ports or transferium, are all the rage in the logistics business, but the idea has been around a while--Chicago and Kansas City were originally inland ports. Developers build them where land is cheap and plentiful, or along navigable rivers, and seek to connect them to seaports by rail or barge. Customers like them, too, because they get quicker access to their goods and can locate their operations nearby without having to pay for expensive portside real estate. Hyperloop could unlock the benefits of inland dry ports while offering greater reliability, capacity, and speed than rail. “We believe we can increase the volume of freight DP World moves through the port, which supports more revenue and profit for all stakeholders,” said Rob Lloyd, CEO of Hyperloop One.
The feasibility study will investigate the business case, route options and cost to build and operate the system. A Hyperloop tube could tunnel underground or fit within existing rights of way, minimizing the impact on the dense metropolis (see artist renderings below and at top). An even bolder solution would include Hyperloop tubes submerged under water to connect Jebel Ali’s new island Terminal 4 to onshore destinations.
"This study is the first step towards the construction of the Hyperloop in Dubai," said Hyperloop One Chairman Shervin Pishevar, "which could reshape one of the world’s most modern cities and bring even more infrastructure innovation to the United Arab Emirates.”
When situated well, inland ports could grow into diverse and high-margin logistics and manufacturing hubs with their own customs and clearance operations. DP World operates several in Europe along the Rhine, Meuse and Neckar rivers and on the Albert Canal near Antwerp in Belgium. In the U.S., the Virginia Inland Port, located 200 miles from Norfolk, has attracted 39 major companies, more than $750 million in investment and 8.5 million square feet of space, creating 8,000 jobs.
Inland ports could also be a means to solving the trickier logistics that shippers face once their cargo hits the shore. Some of DP World markets have very intriguing last-mile challenges. For example, DP World supports close to 30% of India’s container trade from its five ports on the Indian coast, but to service the hinterland successfully, the company sought a special license from the Indian government to operate its own trains over state rails. Inefficient infrastructure is a real check on economic growth and development. Roughly 30% of Kenya’s wheat exports, an amount equivalent to Australia’s annual consumption, gets spoiled or wasted due to delays.
Hyperloop One’s deal with DP World is its fifth feasibility study to date and its first in the Gulf region. Other studies are underway in Finland and Sweden, Russia, Switzerland, and the United States. The one in the U.S. is a similar cargo study being done in partnership with design and engineering giant AECOM to use Hyperloop technology to offload containers from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
In the meantime, Hyperloop engineering teams continue to refine and improve the electric motor demonstrated in May and have commenced assembly work on DevLoop, the full-system platform that will begin preliminary runs later this year and early next year in advance of our “Kitty Hawk moment,” when the first Hyperloop vehicle levitates at high speed through a near-vacuum tube. The next mode of transportation is arriving sooner than you think. --Bruce Upbin, VP Strategic Communications, Hyperloop One