Virgin Hyperloop completed a first test with people on board on Sunday in Las Vegas, with commercial passengers expected to climb aboard the transport system by the end of the decade, an executive of the company said.
"This was our Kitty Hawk moment," Josh Giegel, co-founder and chief technology officer, told The National a few hours after the test was completed, referring to the small North Caroline town where the Wright brothers completed the first powered flight, in 1903.
Mr Giegel and Sara Luchian, director of passenger experience, were the first two people to climb on board the hyperloop. Dressed in jeans and sneakers they buckled up for a 400-metre ride at a maximum speed of 172 kilometres per hour.
DP World, the world's biggest ports operator by volume, is the largest shareholder in Virgin Hyperloop, with plans to use the system to transport cargo in the future.
Sultan bin Sulayem, chairman of Virgin Hyperloop and chief executive of DP World, was trackside for the demo event.
“I had the true pleasure of seeing history being made before my very eyes – to witness the first new mode of mass transportation in over 100 years come to life,” he said.
“We are one step closer to ushering in a new era of ultra-fast, sustainable movement of people and goods.”
While the test run did not come close to the 900kph promised for widespread, economical commercial use, Mr Giegel said Sunday's test proved the system was safe for people.
"The No 1 question I get, from investors to Uber drivers, is, 'Is it safe?'" he said.
Virgin's system includes magnetic levitation, similar to high speed rail.
One of the technology's biggest hurdles is G forces, which creates the feeling of being pulled back in one's seat. But the test run did not exceed 4.8 G forces – that of Formula Rossa, the world's fastest rollercoaster at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi. The test passengers likened the experience to accelerating in a sports car.
The ultimate vision for Virgin Hyperloop is to build a network that connects cities. Mr Giegel said that its future commercial systems are being designed to have pods that seat 28 people. Artificial intelligence would manage trip timing and capacity, allowing for tens of thousands of passengers to be carried per hour.
Mr Giegel said he believes regulatory frameworks and the technology will be ready within this decade.
Elon Musk came up with the idea for hyperloop technology in 2013, and challenged engineers to develop a sustainable, high-speed transportation method using low-pressure tube trains.
Two Los Angeles companies, Virgin Hyperloop and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, among several others, are now racing to make this concept a reality.
While Virgin Hyperloop is in talks about possible commercial projects in several US states, it has a longstanding presence in the UAE and Middle East.
In March, Saudi Arabia issued a trade licence for the company following a national pre-feasibility study on using hyperloop technology to transport people and goods. The study found a hyperloop would cut the travel time from Riyadh to Jeddah to only 46 minutes compared with 9-10 hours by car.