Hyperloop’s boldest CEO dreams of ‘naked’ travel

By Kitty Knowles 2 October 2017

Meet Dirk Ahlborn.

You might know that Elon Musk coined the term ‘hyperloop’.

The simplified idea? You climb into a pod which travels inside a tube in a vacuum at the speed of sound – potentially getting you from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes.

Very little energy is used, and the system itself is powered by renewable energy – meaning commuters could even catch it for free.

But this is a dream that existed long before Musk, with the first patent for a train inside a vacuum tube granted in 1904.

And today, it’s leaders like Dirk Ahlborn CEO at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) who are making the dream a reality.

It’s also Ahlborn’s dream to help you travel ‘naked’.

More on that later…

What’s broken today?

In short, today’s transport systems are broken businesses. The ability for people to commute at speed is important in most countries, but governments are haemorrhaging money on tube and train networks.

“There’s actually no metro, no train in the world, that’s profitable,” Ahlborn told The Memo last week at Cutting Edge Festival – part of Oslo Innovation Week in Norway.

“The Norwegian Railways lose somewhere between 200-300 krones per passenger per ride,” he explains. “It’s like that everywhere in the world.”

The passenger experience is also deeply flawed, he stresses:

“We’re treated like cattle. At every step you’re in lines.”

The experience of flying, he says, is “dishuman”. “You are cramped into ever smaller seats. I’m fairly large – it’s hard for me to be in an economy seat. I literally don’t fit.”

The ‘naked’ dream

The team at HTT however, is focused on building a system that makes both economic – and human – sense.

Already the company has solved concerns around finance through an innovative business model: it works with over 800 people and at least 40 partner companies, but most of them work in exchange for stock options.

“They’re not paid, so they are driven by passion. This really allows us to work with the best people anywhere in the world,” says Ahlborn.

And in terms of fixing your future commute, HTT is focused on everything feeling totally seamless: “We call it ‘the naked passenger experience’ because, when you’re naked, you don’t have anything – and if that still works then for you then it’s a perfect solution.”

This big idea is that when you leave your house the elevator is there because it knows that you left your apartment, the self driving car (or your Uber, or your taxi) is there when you reach the street to take you to the station.

“Everything is done without the need of your cell phone. Without the need of your wallet,” says Ahlborn.

“Technology works the moment you don’t feel that it’s there.”

Personal pods

Once you get to your Hyperloop pod, Ahlborn also wants you to forget about the idea of ‘first class’ or ‘second class’ seating. In fact, he hopes, your seat is free.

“You’re not paying for it because there’s other ways of monetising on your time,” he explains – a bit like how you pay for in-app purchases in a free mobile game.

“You want to have a business meeting? Okay now there’s a business meeting room,” he says.

“Maybe you want a spa experience, maybe you can do your doctor visits while you’re being transported, maybe it’s a dating service.”

What might Ahlborn want in his pod, you wonder. “It really depends on my mood you know, but maybe if I’m on a date, I would like it to be more catered towards that,” he says.

“You might want to have a bit more intimacy … you want to maybe have the right music, the right ambiance … depending on how the date goes you might want to have, you know, other opportunities,” he adds laughing.

Yes, we think Ahlborn just hinted you could soon be hooking up at the speed of sound…

Making the dream a reality

It’s now just 3 to 6 months until HTT announces its first commercial line (although you’ll likely have to wait at least a further 3 years until you can ride it).

While he won’t give away where the first Hyperloop will be, Ahlborn has already met with everyone from Angela Merkel to Vladimir Putin, and has already signed feasibility studies in the United Arab Emirates, the Czech Republic, and in India.

The company has a new R&D center in France, while in South Korea HTT technology is being licensing to local consult teams.

“Technology is not the challenge,” says Ahlborn. The challenge the CEO must still overcome, it appears, is helping those in power sign-off on such a task.

“You only have a small window of opportunity, you can’t rely on one country,” he says.

There’s also the competition, in rival business Hyperloop One, but Ahlborn isn’t threatened. Quite the opposite.

“For me it’s not a competition – we’re all going into the same direction, and the more you hear about Hyperloop the better,” he says.

We can’t wait for the first Hyperloop to arrive – especially if we can ride it naked.