How two LA-based startups joined forces to build the first hyperloop pod
I love vehicles! The more extreme, the better!
Vehicles are the devices that intrinsically weave the three dimensions of space with the one dimension of time. In a sense, they are among the most impactful items that define one’s life experience: where and how you live, work, play, connect, and discover.
Vehicles move people (and cargo) within complex ecosystems of infrastructure and energy. Therefore, designing a vehicle extends well beyond the vehicle itself. It becomes an exercise in designing an entire interactive experience between the passengers and their environments. When done in a thoughtful, elegant, and balanced fashion, the experience can be freeing, exhilarating, and exciting. When done in the opposite fashion, you get congestion, pollution, accidents, long commutes, wasted time, wasted money, wasted energy, in other words, wasted life and wasted opportunity.
My fascination with vehicles steered my education toward engineering. From one fast vehicle to another, I was fortunate enough to move around quite a lot and benefitted from high-quality education, first in Iran, then in France, and finally in the United States. I grew up devouring magazines, books, and films on extreme vehicles that moved faster, further, and higher. When I graduated from Stanford University with a Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Astronautics in 2005, it appeared that software was all the rage, and that relatively little was happening on the hardware front. Mature vehicle concepts were being incrementally optimized by very powerful software, but groundbreaking vehicle concepts seemed to gather little to no traction. Even worse, some of the most iconic vehicles of my childhood started to be retired without any compelling replacements in sight – the SR-71 Blackbird (retired in 1999), the Concorde (retired in 2003), and the Space Shuttle (retired in 2011) are a few examples. It looked as if progress on new vehicles was not simply slowing down, it was reversing! And then, in the midst of the software craze of the early 21st century, hardware started to make a radical comeback. From electric cars, to drones, to rockets, to 3D-printing, we are witnessing a fresh approach to hardware.
One of the defining aspects of Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO) is the focus on radical hardware. Beyond all the fancy animations, numerical simulations, mathematical models, projections, interpolations, conjectures, and hypotheses, there is hardware. You cannot argue with hardware. Either the hardware performs, or it doesn’t. When it performs, it silences all the nay-sayers, experimentally validates analytical and numerical predictions, and pushes the envelope of what was impossible yesterday toward what will be considered as routine tomorrow. If the hardware doesn’t perform, then back to the drawing board (or computer screen) until a better solution is analyzed, designed, manufactured, and tested. This is a key part of VHO’s result-oriented and output-driven mindset.
Nowhere was our dedication to radical hardware more apparent than in the successful completion of our large-scale, full-system hyperloop test campaigns of our DevLoop testbed in the desert of North Las Vegas. On May 12th, 2017, we made history two minutes after midnight when we successfully operated our vehicle using electric propulsion and electromagnetic levitation under near-vacuum conditions. We’ve since run hundreds of tests, acquiring validated knowledge that only comes from real-world testing.
XP-1: the first hyperloop pod
The first hyperloop experimental pod (XP-1) is a vehicle that features a fuselage built on and around a levitating chassis. The fuselage is an aerodynamic shell optimized for high-speed and low-pressure operations inside the DevLoop tube’s specific inner shapes (including levitation tracks, guidance tracks, propulsion stators, etc.). The chassis is a frame that is electrically propelled along the tracks without physical contact via electromagnetic levitation and guidance.
It might sound trivial, but hardware is hard! Using state-of-the-art software, a small team of talented, determined, and well-organized people can quickly perform hundreds of digital iterations on the design and analysis of the abovementioned pieces of hardware. Iterating digitally is relatively simple and increasingly affordable. Once a design is finalized and that a digital creation is ready to be turned into physical hardware, things usually become an order of magnitude harder. For a small startup, it is crucial to allocate the limited internal resources judiciously. One must distinguish between the pieces of hardware that need to be handled in-house, versus the ones that are better accomplished by external partners. Large companies benefit from well-established supply chain networks and external partners. Sometimes the relationships with these external partners take decades to cultivate. Startups don’t have the luxury of solidly established external relationships, networks, and processes. Startups need to establish them from scratch and somewhat on-the-fly.
When we embarked on the DevLoop adventure, I was part of a team that we internally referred to as the Pod Squad. Some of my teammates were working on the chassis, others were designing the suspension, others still were dealing with levitation and propulsion. I was tasked with the design of the fuselage (or aero-shell) of the pod. As you can imagine, there were many stringent constraints on lift, drag, pitching moment, yawing moment, gaps, tolerances, mass, access doors and panels, payload volume, instrumentation accommodation, etc. under various conditions in terms of velocity, pressure, pitch angle, yaw angle, acceleration, deceleration, you name it! My teammates and I came up with smart workflows that allowed us to parameterize and automate the design and simulation of hundreds of geometric shapes under a wide spectrum of conditions. While doing so, we also designed, deployed, and incrementally expanded our in-house parallel supercomputer to run these simulations. Once we had a design for the fuselage, everybody was so busy with so many tasks that it wasn’t clear who had the bandwidth to take on the task of finding the right external partners to manufacture it. Manufacturing a fully functional piece of hardware to be seamlessly integrated onto our levitating chassis, according to our stringent time, budget, and quality constraints was a rather daunting task and no one potential subcontractor seemed to check all the boxes.
One of the characteristics of working at a startup is that you don’t “work” at a startup. You live the startup. In our case, you live, breathe, eat, drink, worry, think, dream, imagine, talk hyperloop in a passionate and sometimes obsessive drive. It is always in the back of your mind. With statistics stacked against you and all the nay-sayers wishing your failure, you could use some luck in addition to all the hard work. Sometimes that all-consuming passionate, obsessive, and driven mindset “provokes luck” and you find a solution where you weren’t looking. I tend to think about it as provoking serendipity!
Despite what you might think, sometimes there is work-life balance in startups. On a serendipitous occasion, while worrying about the fuselage of XP-1, in November 2016, I took my two daughters Ariana (aged 6) and Anahita (aged 2) to the Los Angeles Auto Show during the weekend. After all, kids must be exposed to innovative engineering and beautifully-designed vehicles at an early age! At the entrance of the show, there was a very inspiring display by an LA-based startup company by the name of Divergent 3D (or D3D). They showcased their astonishing 3D-printing capabilities with their Blade supercar and various other beautifully topology-optimized 3D-printed parts.
My mind started to race and connect the dots. Here was an LA-based hardware startup, with a daring and dynamic team, a fascinatingly fresh approach to manufacturing, and the capability to produce such beautiful and functional pieces of hardware.
With my kids in tow, I waited patiently in line, pulling Ariana’s hand with my left hand and pushing Anahita’s stroller with my right hand. Eventually I got to briefly chat with Kevin Czinger, Divergent 3D’s CEO. I knew I was speaking to a potential future partner.
A few emails and phone calls later, Kevin Czinger and Broc TenHouten (Divergent 3D’s COO) rallied some of their best talents and visited us at Hyperloop One with excellent presentation materials, proposals, schedules, and options. We got right to work.
Both companies being based in LA gave us a tremendous advantage. Over several months of collaboration, we benefitted from weekly or bi-weekly face-to-face meetings at our respective facilities. In this digital age of video-conferencing, there’s still nothing like in-person communication. It is these very shared experiences we are working to enable here at VHO.
The test footage speaks for itself. Divergent 3D went above and beyond to deliver the XP-1 fuselage with the utmost professional execution. This interaction is emblematic of the positive mindset and can-do attitude that is so prevalent among startups that deeply believe they are on a mission to disrupt the status quo to make the world a better place.
A couple of months ago, our Chairman Sir Richard Branson was visiting VHO’s Los Angeles office. One of my colleagues asked him what was common between all the different Virgin companies. He said something that I have been pondering since. He said something along these lines: “The people! A company is a company of people, you are in people’s company.”
What we are doing is extreme: building the first new mode of major transportation in 100 years. It is not technology, but people that make the impossible, possible.