Virgin Hyperloop: Building the Impossible
The ride only lasted 15 seconds, but Virgin Hyperloop made history when it completed the world’s first-ever passenger test of its rapid-transport technology in the Nevada desert.
Achieving speeds up to 108 mph (170 km), the November 2020 test showed the potential for rapid transportation of not just cargo, but people. The four-person crew on the maiden journey included Virgin Hyperloop CEO/co-founder Josh Giegel and Sara Luchian, director of Passenger Experience.
Once operational, it is hoped that 50,000 passengers will be able to travel on the hyperloop per hour—the equivalent of a 30-lane highway—and speeds will reach more than 700 mph (1,126 km), which is three times faster than high-speed rail and more than 10 times faster than traditional rail.
Risk Is in the Eye of the Beholder
It took Giegel and his team six years to establish the safety protocols necessary to launch the first test of human passengers. The passengers travel in vehicles called pods, which move through a low-pressured tube and float along the track using magnetic levitation. An electrical propulsion system then accelerates the pods to high speeds.
“A lot of people asked me, ‘did you think getting in the pod was risky?’ I replied ‘No, not at all,’” Giegel said. “We had been through all the development. We had been through all the safety testing. I knew the probability of things. Maybe I'm more risk tolerant than others, but at the same time, it's not risky to me because I know how we got to that stage.”
For Giegel, building something that is risky is also an opportunity to create something that someone else thinks is impossible.
“Risk is definitely in the eye of the beholder; from the outside, this might appear to be a really risky venture, but risk becomes mitigated with a degree of skill and confidence, but also a degree of optimism,” he said. “Risk is just a different type of problem that you are solving.”
Giegel deals with risk by breaking everything down into smaller bite size elements to see each individual piece as it is. He can then learn and understand how to do things in better ways before moving on to the next piece and fitting everything together.
To ensure all safety requirements had been met before the passenger test went ahead, an independent safety assessor was brought in to examine all of their processes. “It was an opportunity to mature us as an organization—to reflect,” said Giegel.
Virgin Hyperloop’s attention to risk protocols also helped reassure governments that it is a safe mode of transport. The U.S. government has recently said that Virgin Hyperloop is eligible for the same type of funding that rail and other transportation systems receive.
“Governments are very risk averse,” said Giegel. “We spent time developing the product, explaining the product, explaining the next stages of the development.”
Curious Project Managers, Flexible Approaches
It is not an easy feat to build something that many see as impossible, so Giegel looks to hire project managers with certain characteristics.
“What makes a really good project manager is curiosity,” said Giegel. “If something's going off plan, why is it doing it? You need to try to find out the rationale behind it. You have to have that degree of curiosity to find out what might be working.”
“The other part that is really important is the ability to speak up, to say ‘Hey, this isn't working well’ and to challenge peers, to challenge other people in the organization.”
Giegel also seeks project leaders who can see things from different perspectives. Like everyone else, the project and program managers had never worked on a passenger system before.
“That could have either been a hindrance or an opportunity,” said Giegel. “The opportunity is, they weren't constrained by this is how it has to be done.”
The project managers at Virgin Hyperloop use both predictive and agile approaches. “Each of the individual groups has the flexibility to run their teams in the most efficient sense,” said Giegel.
The civil construction side heavily favors predictive methods, the aerospace, mechanical and automotive sides less so, and software development almost exclusively uses agile.
If You Build It, They Will Come
But building Virgin Hyperloop is more than just developing a new technology. It is also creating a new transportation market. Managers should be able to cross collaborate as building the technology and developing the market should be able to leverage off each other.
“Oh, here's a new capability of the vehicle. Does that open up a new market opportunity?” said Giegel. “Here's a new customer opportunity. Does this vehicle work in that particular setting?”
Since the first passenger test, Virgin Hyperloop has been looking at a number of city-to-city type connectors such as Mumbai to Pune in India, as well as connecting city centers to airports.
It is expected the first opportunities will only carry cargo. “We will take all of that data, all those improvements and learnings, and incorporate that into the passenger product,” said Giegel.
Once the Virgin Hyperloop is fully operational, Giegel expects there will be additional opportunities for this new mode of transport. Giegel even envisions the possibility of a transatlantic route.
“We are already in an enclosed tube, some of the areas would go under the sea floor, we've looked at this idea or concept of maybe a floating tunnel or even a semi-submerged tunnel,” he said.
This would make it possible to transport cargo from China to the United States in a day or two instead of a month by boat.
“It really could change the game,” said Giegel.
Digital Exclusive article developed for Project Management Institute, Inc. by Joanne Frearson. Frearson is a U.K.-based business reporter.