Indian startups keep hyperloop hopes alive

02nd February 2024
Indian startups  keep hyperloop  hopes alive
IIT Madras Students’ Team Avishkar Hyperloop at the European Hyperloop Week 2023 held in Edinburgh, Scotland

Just over a decade after electric car entrepreneur and ‘X’ (formerly Twitter) owner Elon Musk first mooted a daring new way to move people across land at speeds over 600 kmph,  in semi-vacuum tubes, that dream  has crashed for the  company he founded: Hyperloop One.

The San Jose (CA)  Mercury News has reported last month, citing  Bloomberg,  that almost all its 200-plus employees have been laid off,  its Las Vegas test track sold off  and its  technology and intellectual property likely  transferred to principal shareholder and  Dubai-based conglomerate, DP World.

India, at one time saw at least three MOUs signed with the parent US developer to set up Hyperloop links between places   like Bengaluru airport, its city centre and Mysuru in Karnataka;  Mumbai and Pune, in Maharashtra and between Amaravathi and Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh.

And this week, it seemed to be business as usual for a handful  of startups which have started Hyperloop projects of their own in recent years.

Hyperloop One’s basic idea of land transportation at near aircraft speeds  has regularly attracted world headlines  since 2014 – and US$ 450 million  in investments  from  entities including Virgin Airlines’ Richard Branson.  For a few years it was rebranded Virgin Hyperloop till Branson pulled his stake out and DP World stepped in.

Power electronics engineer Tanay Manjrekar. was among the very few to have test-ridden a hyperloop vehicle: Photo Virgin Hyperloop
At one time a few professionals from India worked for Hyperloop: they included  Pune-origin power electronics engineer Tanay Manjrekar,  who had the distinction of being  one of the first two  humans to  ride the  test track  in a Hyperloop pod albeit at a scaled-down speed of 175 kmph.

But the years lost to Covid took their toll on Hyperloop and in March 2022, a surprise announcement said the project was being repurposed for transporting goods rather than people.  This dampened much of the enthusiasm world-wide.  People being able to journey from Pune to Mumbai in 25 minutes instead of 3 hours or between San Francisco to Los Angeles in California, cutting down the  6 hour drive   to 35 minutes,  had an attraction for motorists.  But who needed to move goods that fast?

 It was mostly downhill for the project  in the US after,  that till last month’s final closure.

Indian efforts

As far as one can tell, startups centred mostly around Pune and  Chennai  who  are at various  stages of  putting scaled-down  Hyperloop pods through  their paces, are  not giving up.

In Chennai, two teams mentored at IIT Madras, have been  regularly  meeting their milestones.  Since 2017,  the 50-member Team Avishkar has  received funding from the Indian government,  L&T and Tube Investments of India and an expression of interest from the Railways  and has been pushing for a 350 km track between  Chennai and Bengaluru that could reduce travel timeto 30 minutes. 

The IIT-Madras-incubated startup, TuTr, hopes to carry forward the research of Team Avishkar and commercialize it.  PTI reported, that the company has partnered with Tata Steel and Arcelor Mittal to put up a 400-metre test track  in Chennai. Last year it signed an agreement with a Netherlands-based Hyperloop player, Hardt Hyperloop, for some joint development.  TuTr’s initial focus will  be  on transporting cargo – always a safer option to try.

Cargo  is also the priority of Pune startup Quintrans which has been working since 2021. The company grew out of a  40-student project at MIT World Peace University called VegaPod.   Having  raised  over  USD 100,000,  in investments, Quintrans appears to be reasonably well funded – for now.

Hyperloop  gatherings of the faithful continue to be held  worldwide. At the European Hyperloop Week 2023 in Zurich, Switzerland, all Indian projects were represented and some like Team Avishkar  were judged among the top 3 entries. EHW 2024 takes place in July this year and is expected to see Indian participation again.

Now that the original Hyperloop in the US has been abandoned,  will a domino effect erase these Indian efforts or will they rise Phoenix-like  with viable systems,   out of the ashes of Hyperloop One?

Too early to tell – but without a strong anchor customer like government, it looks to be a formidable task. At one time the government-run railways showed interest, but Dr V.K Saraswat, the member in the Indian government  think tank, NITI Aayog,  in charge of  exploring the potential of Hyperloop, was quoted by PTI two months ago   ruling out any serious  near-term interest in the technology as an ultra-high-speed  train  option.

No other big corporate or government interest is visible –though state governments like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh might still keep their original plans open. But realistically,  the Indian efforts are  still nowhere close  to workable prototypes – and  even  with an optimistic and upbeat  government at the helm, a hyperloop transport – for people or goods --   wearing the Indian tricolour  looks like something of a dream today.  But 10 years hence?  Who knows!

This has appeared in NewIndiaAbroad