In August 2013, the aerospace firm SpaceX released a paper describing a new mode of transportation, the hyperloop.
Lauding the technology as a "fast and inexpensive" way to move "people and goods," the document presents a vision for an enclosed tube in which vehicles can travel "at over 700 mph." The vehicles moving through these tubes would rest on "a cushion of air" similar to those that cover the surfaces of air hockey tables except that, in this configuration, the vehicle rather than the tube would be generating the cushion.
The inside of the tube would be a low-pressure environment, with pressure levels regulated by "commercial pumps." Vehicles traversing the hyperloop would, therefore, face minimal air resistance, requiring less energy to be spent on transporting them. Magnets "affixed at various" points along the tube would propel them through it.
In the intervening years, a number of companies have sprung up and begun competing for the distinction of being the first to bring a working hyperloop system to market.
At least one of those firms, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (Hyperloop TT), believes that blockchain technology will be a component of this futuristic mode of transportation.
Bibop Gresta, Hyperloop TT's Chairman, recently spoke to ETHNews from the United Arab Emirates, where the company had just broken ground on what will be a 10km-long "commercial" hyperloop track covering some of the terrain between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
The company is also set to assemble a prototype that Gresta calls a "full-scale hyperloop" in Toulouse, France, which it expects will be operational before the year's end.
While the chairman says that the firm's blockchain team "has just started" its work, he appeared to be overflowing with ideas about the roles that the technology will play in what he regards as the transportation system of tomorrow.
Hyperloop TT and Blockchain Technology
With a team of over 800 engineers hailing from 42 countries, Hyperloop TT is currently working toward a rollout of what Gresta calls "phase 1" of hyperloop travel. This is the most stripped-down version of a hyperloop system, one in which vehicles in the tube ("agents," as Gresta calls them), move only "from Point A to Point B" and from "Point B to Point A," with both of those points being hyperloop stations.
While the project is ambitious by any account, Gresta sees it as a mere stepping stone on the way to phase 2, which he describes as "an ecosystem that is bigger than the hyperloop." It will be during this phase that blockchain technology comes into the picture.
According to Gresta, the Hyperloop TT team is currently in the process of "designing a frictionless experience that starts when our passengers" indicate, via some interface, that they are ready to begin their journey from one place to another.
At that point, an agent capable of traveling both inside and outside of the hyperloop (and possibly of "flying") will pick the passenger up. This vehicle will transport them to a hyperloop; enter through either a station or an airlock along the tube's body; shuttle them through the tube to an optimal point of disembarkment; and perhaps carry them to their destination after exiting the structure.
One or more agents may be involved in a single trip, and agents will have to be "pressurizable" if they are to travel within the hyperloop. Inside the tube, they may be capable of fastening themselves together into something resembling a train.
In Gresta's vision, blockchain technology will automate the payments to all vendors that commuters interact with as they travel. These could include an agent's owner, the operator of each stretch of hyperloop that the commuter passes through (Gresta does not necessarily expect a single entity to own all sections of a hyperloop system), highway toll collectors, and others.
The blockchain-mediated service that will connect passengers to agents will also have access to passenger profiles, which contain information on commuters' preferences and needs.
Gresta describes those needs in the following way: "When you are traveling to go to work [versus] when you come back from work … you are the same person with different needs. When you are a tourist, or you are with your wife, or with your wife and children, you need different things."
In other words, a passenger who hurries to get to work on time in the morning might feel less pressed over their trip back home at the end of the day. A married couple might be perfectly happy to share their agent with other passengers but would not want to do so when they have their children in tow, fearing that the little ones might annoy any strangers sharing the enclosed space with them.
Commuters would share their profiles by sending them to a smart contract, also known as an EDCC. This contract would parse their preferences, select an ideal route based on those preferences, engage the services of an agent on their behalf, and automatically trigger each payment that the passenger makes during their journey. It would also charge travelers different rates depending on how they choose to travel; if they simply want to reach their destination as quickly as possible, or to have a whole agent to themselves, they can expect to pay more.
Gresta sees the hyperloop commuter as a "naked passenger," one whose identity is verified using "his face and his biometrics." A naked passenger would not be required to carry anything, save perhaps a small interface which, like the smartphones of today, they would likely be carrying anyway. (The chairman tentatively predicts that passengers' profiles will be stored "on the cloud," in such a way that only the commuters themselves would have the power to share their own.)
The chairman declined to state which blockchain environment Hyperloop TT will be using, explaining instead that "we have a special way to design our technology that's based on competition … different teams pursuing different technologies. … [W]e are analyzing all the options, so I wouldn't lock our system in one technology… [W]e are always looking to challenge our decisions and to evolve."
The True Cost of Travel
Gresta told ETHNews that some commuters will always opt to take the fastest route, or to travel alone in a dedicated agent. These people, as the colorful chairman put it, "should pay more because they are polluting the shit out of our planet." A passenger, in his estimation, should have the right to travel any way they like, so long as they "pay for the expenses of actually cleaning [their] shit up."
Among the environmental factors that would be taken into account when determining the price of a ride are the "carbon footprint" of the journey, the pollution that it creates, and the "obsolescence of the" agent. (This value would be determined according to the eventual cost of disposing of the vehicle, the total mileage that vehicle is expected to cover in its lifetime, and the distance it had to travel in order to transport a particular passenger.)
On the other hand, passengers who choose to "be responsible and actually create the conditions to optimize [their] travel … will be paying less."
In addition to taking a slower but more energy-efficient route, this optimization could mean waiting for a drone to deliver a package to one's agent before it enters the hyperloop as opposed to, presumably, saving a couple of minutes by receiving the parcel through an airlock while inside the tube or having it waiting at one's destination.
In Gresta's mind, it "is bullshit" that the current transportation paradigm accounts for the individual cost of goods (such as fuel or car parts) in its pricing structure but makes no provision for offsetting the toll that an automobile-based system takes on the environment.
"To actually start a revolution in transportation that is based on abundance … [we must] generate more electricity than we consume," he says. If not, people will continue "basing our economy on limited resources," in spite of the fact that the planet contains only a finite amount of these resources.
Impact on the Transportation Industry
To Hyperloop TT, revolution means creating a transportation system that can sustain itself not only in ecological terms, but also financially.
Gresta stated emphatically that "every single" major form of transportation, including automobiles, "trains, high-speed rail, [and] even the air industry," is a money-losing venture.
To meet and exceed operating costs, the firms behind these solutions receive subsidies, which he describes as a way to stick taxpayers with the bill for propping up a business run by people who "don't really sustain [it] themselves." And the burden that falls on the taxpayer is only part of the story. In the chairman's eyes, the party "paying the real expenses to [maintain these systems] is the planet."
He believes, however, that a blockchain-integrated hyperloop "can change this" by providing a transportation system that stays within its means relative to both its cash flow and the natural resources that it draws upon, a system with a true cost that earth can afford to pay in perpetuity. Gresta is all the more confident that this is possible because "last year, for the first time in history, producing solar energy cost less than producing petrol."
And while he may be personally surprised that the auto industry wasn't made obsolete "ten years ago," he anticipates that car companies will have a role to play in building this future:
"[Hyperloop TT is] already working with a couple big car manufacturers, for example, actually to start experimentation on these agents. We would be the one that will design the specs, but then they will be designing what these agents will do; it is not our job. In our vision, every single car manufacturer will have at least one model that is pressurizable [so that it can go] into the hyperloop."
If the future that Gresta describes sounds distant and improbable, his company is doing more than just research and development to make it a reality. For instance, Gresta is personally taking part in a mobility group under the auspices of the World Economic Forum. "Fifty of the top companies in the world are involved, and for the first time this year, we introduced blockchain at the World Economic Forum level."
Indeed, if Hyperloop TT succeeds, the "stupidity and nonsense" of grouping passengers by class, as some transportation vendors (e.g., airlines) do today, could become a thing of the past, and more complex factors could come to dictate the ways in which people travel.
Gresta hopes that one day, this model becomes "an inspiration to … other industries," because he thinks that "it can actually start to shape their business models."
"When you actually account for the energy consumption," he says, "for the carbon footprint, for the pollution, for all the real costs, then you start to price it differently."
In his vision, Hyperloop TT can teach companies in other sectors about pricing structures that respond instantaneously to customer needs and account not only for the firm's bottom line, but also for the true cost of the firm's services.