Challenges fuel global Hyperloop competitions

May 11, 2016: Successful test, cloudy wake.

As the Hyperloop world turns…

Just three months after sharing hugs, high-fives and champagne in the Nevada desert, 35 miles north of Las Vegas — which celebrated a successful public field test completed just days after $80 million in new Series B funding had been announced — the newly splintered leadership of high-powered startup Hyperloop One now finds itself on opposite ends of two “wild” lawsuits, one seeking $250 million in damages for a failed “coup.”

This, even as the well-connected startup racing to create Elon Musk‘s “fifth mode of transportation” continues to host the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, an ambitious competition intended to identify and select locations around the world with the potential to develop and construct the world’s first hyperloop networks. Launched May 15 as an open online portal, the contest already has drawn over 500 entries from more than 80 countries, spread across six continents. As of last month, proposals are most heavily clustered in India, Western Europe, and the Eastern U.S. The submission portal closes Sept. 15.

“You don’t have to be a huge entity to enter and win, but huge entities are entering and planning to win,” says Hyperloop One in its July 15 blog update, adding that “a diverse array of the world’s biggest companies, governments and agencies have already registered.” They include: AECOMGensler; ConnektSiemens (Germany); Systra (France); Ryder Architecture (UK); Google; Intel; NASAKPMG; the States of Alaska and Colorado; Korea National University of Transportation; State Bank of India; Development Bank of South Africa; and the Institute of Space Technology Pakistan.

Hyperloop One Global Challenge submissions, as of July 15, 2016.

  • Above, the judges: Hyperloop board member and X Prize Foundation chair Diamandis; global rail expert Mansour; logistics industry veteran Tapaninen (an economic advisor to the City of Helsinki); FirstGroup engineering director Burrows; and MIT urban design expert Berger

According to the contest’s posted timeline, the judges will announce 12 finalists by the end of the year, and then choose the Challenge’s three winners by March 1, 2017. According to Hyperloop One, “The teams that stand the best chance of winning are those who present a compelling case for a real Hyperloop corridor, as in a favorable economic model, investment case, and the willpower to advance the regulatory climate. Winners will be able to tap further into our network of partners, get full access to our technology and our ability to help raise capital in creative ways.”

  • 48-hour Hyperloop Hackathon just announced for Dubai, Sept. 26-28. Details here.

Prior to the challenge, Hyperloop One’s supporters already included Oracle’s Sun MicrosystemsSherpa Ventures, KPMG, and France’s SNCF, plus the trio of design and engineering all-stars AECOM, ARUP, and Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG).

Meanwhile, in court

Despite the big-name backing, excitement surrounding last spring’s successes, and the ongoing buzz around the global challenge, all is far from tranquil at Hyperloop One. On the contrary, just last week, Bloomberg Technology published a detailed, soap opera-like saga with this sensational headline: How Hyperloop One Went Off the Rails. The article went on to ask if the transportation startup “can rise above founder clashes and employee lawsuits?”

So, how did such a hopeful spring turn into such a contentious summer?

Well, certainly internal unrest had been brewing for months, Bloomberg reports, but just a month after the successful May 11 test, cofounder Brogan BamBrogan (not a typo) and bitter rival Afshin Pishevar (brother of chairman and cofounder Shervin Pishevar) both were gone. In July, “BamBrogan and three other former employees filed a lawsuit against the Pishevar brothers and the company, also naming CEO Rob Lloyd and investor Joseph Lonsdale in the suit. It alleges the men didn’t have the company’s interests at heart, and also makes claims of assault and defamation,” according to Bloomberg.

Empty desks: BamBrogan and A. Pishevar both were asked to leave in June after clashing publicly over qualifications.

The firm filed a $250-million counterclaim against BamBrogan and the other ex-employees, alleging that they were trying to launch a competing venture and hurt Hyperloop One in the process. No resolution of either suit is expected before next spring, at the earliest.

Of note, CEO Lloyd is former president of Cisco, where he worked for 21 years before joining Hyperloop One last September. Brushing aside the legal challenges, he told Bloomberg that while the conflict was “not something I would have hoped for,” he believed it would ultimately make the company stronger.

  • Happier days: Below, in order of appearance, BamBrogan, S. Pishevar, and CEO Lloyd
  • Of course, not everyone sees these legal hurdles as a character-building exercise.

Crowdsourcing alternatives

Hyperloop One’s rivals, led by fellow California firm Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), are busy cutting deals and avoiding controversy. Colorful HTT Chairman Bibop Gresta told BuiltWorlds earlier today, in fact, “We tested our propulsion and levitation in 2015, way before them.”

For its part, since launching in August 2013, HTT has collaborated with AECOM, SupraStudio UCLA, ANSYSOerlikon Corporation, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in developing its technology. Last year, HTT committed to basing its production and operations in Quay Valley, CA, a sustainable model town being built between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

As a business, HTT so far has survived on funding crowdsourced via its own JumpStartFund platform, a creation of HTT founder and CEO Dirk Ahlborn. The firm says it now has 700 employees working on 45 teams in 26 countries, all in exchange for stock options. Not surprisingly, the Italian-born Gresta and German-born Ahlborn have focused heavily on markets overseas, especially in India and Europe.

Just last month, in fact, HTT and Deutsche Bahn (DB) announced that they had launched a collaborative venture to create an Innovation Train that uses technologies being developed by HTT for its hyperloop. DB will finance implementations of the project, which launched earlier this month on a production schedule that is aiming to carry passengers on the high-speed system as early as next year.

Another European collaboration was announced May 24, when HTT unveiled Vibranium, a new “smart material” that it claims is eight times stronger than aluminum and 10 times stronger than steel, “and transmits critical information regarding temperature, stability, integrity and more, wirelessly and instantly.” Vibranium was developed jointly with C2i, a Slovakian firm that “intelligently engineers carbon-fiber structures for next-generation cars and aircrafts.” Its proposed application in the walls of the Hyperloop capsule would create an insulated, dual-layer formation. “This allows for complete passenger safety even if the outer skin is damaged,” said Ahlborn.

Elsewhere, Russia’s Transport Ministry also announced in May its own plans to enter the hyperloop race. It joins a growing list of interested international parties that may soon force radical transportation innovation to arrive much faster and in more places than anyone could have imagined.

In that sense, 2017 is shaping up to be a truly pivotal year for this technology, both in court and out.

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