Weekly Brief: Hyperloopy Hopes at Least Short-Term Job Prospect

Virgin Group boss Richard Branson and West Virginia Governor Jim Justice announced last week that Virgin Hyperloop will build a $500M certification center in West Virginia.

A former coal mine will serve as home for the hyperloop technology’s certification center, a fitting reminder that the paradigms of yesterday are always in the process of being flipped into the revolutions of tomorrow. The center will include a six-mile hyperloop tube, through which small pods will travel at speeds up to 700mph. The technology is far from new and draws on experimental levitating train projects, under the name Maglev, run in various countries around the globe since the 1960s. Indeed, Japan has two Maglev trains in development and hold the world manned-train speed record of 375mph.

Hyperloop’s take on it is using strips of magnets on the bottom of each tube or carriage. Each pod has its own strip of magnets on its underbelly. Since the two sets of magnets repel each other, the pod levitates and uses electric power to thrust itself forward through the tube with such speed that it can turn a four-hour drive into a thirty-minute dash.

Virgin Hyperloop already has an active development center in Nevada called DevLoop, where the technology is being refined. The purpose of the new certification center in West Virginia is to have a location where the company can build the regulatory case and framework around its technology. It also plans to explore how the system would work as a commercial mode of transportation, from passenger safety needs to riding preferences. Branson says that he plans to have regulatory approval from lawmakers by 2025 and an active passenger service up and running come 2030.

Keep in mind that Branson, like Elon Musk, is a serial entrepreneur whose lofty goals and short timeframes often don’t intersect with reality. In fact, Branson borrowed the idea of the hyperloop from Musk, who has been too busy with Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring Company to make hyperloop a priority. Musk is thrilled to see Branson and others pushing this forward at such an aggressive pace. The United States Department of Transportation has already green-lighted hyperloop projects to be available for federal funding and states are lining up in hopes of attracting future projects.

None of this guarantees hyperloop’s success. In fact, the odds are strong that it never comes to fruition, at least not as we’re talking about it today. On the flip side, we spend most weeks sitting around thinking about the future of transportation in familiar terms. Last week Amazon unveiled its new electric delivery vehicle, which it plans to produce 10,000 of by next year in partnership with Rivian. Also last week Einride introduced its new self-driving pod. Everything right now points in the direction of drones, EVs and self-driving cars, just as everything pointed in the direction of mainframe computers in the 1980s. Ten years later mainframes were obsolete, personal computers were all the rage and the Internet had come out of nowhere and changed the whole game.

So keep your eye on Charleston, West Virginia. If nothing else, the center will be a short-term boon for jobs in coal country. Branson says it will create upward of 200 jobs for engineers and technicians. Construction and maintenance of the facility will create an additional 13,000 jobs.


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