Transportation

Hyper-Travel Test Site Coming to Colorado

A Los Angeles-based startup plans on testing a high-speed transportation option, similar to Hyperloop One, in the state.

by Tamara Chuang, The Denver Post / November 14, 2017
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(TNS) –– Colorado will be the site of a first-of-its-kind test track for a futuristic transportation system that could one day whisk passengers from downtown Denver to Boulder in eight minutes.

Arrivo, a Los Angeles startup, will partner with the Colorado Department of Transportation to build the half-mile track alongside the E-470 tollway near Denver International Airport, and open a research and development center in Commerce City. Arrivo is one of a new breed of high-tech companies, including the speedier and better-funded Virgin Hyperloop One, attempting to bypass road congestion with dedicated tracks for faster travel.

“We’re calling it the High Speed Super Urban Network, which isn’t as good as (the term) hyperloop. But we’re a pack of engineers. We’re open for branding,” said Arrivo co-founder Brogan BamBrogan. “Really, our focus is on ending traffic. That should be catchy enough for anybody, especially in Denver.”

From hosting the first autonomous beer-delivery truck to becoming a finalist for the global Hyperloop One competition, Colorado’s reputation as a place to test new transportation technologies is on the rise as the state’s transportation department looks to tech to deal with a rising population, increased traffic deaths and pretty much the same annual budget. Its executive director, Shailen Bhatt, said the state has a responsibility to explore all potential technologies that could alleviate congestion, keep citizens safer and offer a better alternative to 1950s fixes of widening or repairing roads.

“The reason we’re partnering with Arrivo is the congestion in Colorado is only getting worse. That’s why CDOT is involved and saying, ‘Come work with us. Build out your test track here,’ ” Bhatt said. “It is futuristic. But just like Hyperloop One that has a test track in Nevada, they’re hitting their milestones with technology development. Arrivo believes in nearer to the future, not 30 years from now but the next few years.”

The E-470 Public Highway Authority, which is preapproved to expand the toll roads to four lanes in both directions, is letting Arrivo build its test track on about a half mile of land near an abandoned toll plaza, BamBrogan said. The site also will be used as an engineering playground for Arrivo and complement a separate research and development office to open in Commerce City. Such roads would ultimately support much more traffic, or up to 20,000 vehicles per lane per hour compared with today’s 3,000 on a “well functioning freeway,” he said.

Last month, the state, through its Strategic Fund incentive, approved up to $760,000 grant to Arrivo over five years if the company invests $4.4 million in a new research facility and creates 152 new jobs with an average annual wage of $99,704. The incentive, however, must be matched by local governments before the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade give its final approval. Arrivo is expected to invest $10 million to $15 million into the research and development office and track.

Both transport technologies still border on fantasy. The hyperloop, an idea popularized by SpaceX founder Elon Musk, relies on vacuum-sealed tubes to push pods from one city to another at speeds of 670 miles per hour, according to Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One, which was renamed last month to Virgin Hyperloop One after Richard Branson’s Virgin Group made a strategic investment.

Arrivo has shared little about how its technology works. While unproven, Arrivo’s technology appears to have the engineering chops. BamBrogan is a former SpaceX engineer who co-founded Hyperloop One before resigning after issues with his cofounder. He started Arrivo last year. Many on Arrivo’s team, which numbers about 40 employees today, came from those companies.

Arrivo’s system uses a dedicated roadway and variety of pods — some hold entire cars, others just freight while another version acts like a shuttle bus. The pods are accelerated by the road infrastructure using electricity and magnets. The roads would have a linear electric motor to propel the vehicles along.

The system would operate on dedicated lanes where the pods travel autonomously at up to 200 miles per hour — or about two-thirds slower than hyperloop technologies.

BamBrogan, who legally changed his name in 2013 to merge it with wife Bambi Liu’s, didn’t have cost estimates but said that the company’s internal research shows the system paying off capital expenditures in about 10 years. But, of course, costs and profits are still to be determined, which is exactly why Arrivo needs to test the technology to determine if it’s technically and financially feasible, he said.

“We’re certainly optimistic but if the study tells us there’s no commercial value or other things about Colorado, we’ll go deploy elsewhere,” he said. “Assuming the study continues to move forward, we do think we can have shovels in the ground by 2019 and deploy the system in 2021.”

Virgin Hyperloop is much further along. It has a one-third-mile test track in Nevada and has been testing its own pod at speeds of 193 miles per hour.

Colorado was named one of 10 finalists for a hyperloop route, and the company has partnered with CDOT to study the feasibility of the proposed route stretching from Cheyenne to Pueblo and west to Vail. The final route, however, left out a Boulder-to-Denver leg, which Bhatt says Arrivo is better suited for.

And then there’s Musk, who popularized hyperloop travel about five years ago though he didn’t want to develop it. Not anymore, apparently. In July, Musk said on Twitter that his Boring Co. was given the approval to begin constructing an underground tunnel by the Maryland Department of Transportation. “NY-DC in 29 mins,” he said in the tweet.

But for many watching these new transportation advances closely, the problem isn’t the technology. It’s the usual roadblocks that have existed for years in all sorts of transportation plans, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the technology researcher Enderle Group.

“The issue with advanced programs like this is government approval, right of ways and risk,” Enderle said. “I expect we will see this running in Dubai long before we see it here.”

For decades, advanced “people movers” in the United States have been nearly impossible to get necessary approvals. Enderle pointed to Walt Disney, which tried to get a monorail built to and from the Los Angeles Airport in the 1960s.

“Walt Disney tried to get a $3 million monorail approved to the L.A. airport in the ’60s and the government spent $9 million on studies just to prove it wasn’t economically viable. There is a huge headwind here for advanced technology at scale which is why much of the innovation is going on in places like China and Dubai,” he said. “But some states like Colorado are trying to be much more progressive of late, so we’ll see.”

BamBrogan, who worked on the early design of the Dragon spacecraft for SpaceX, said he feels he’s bringing the ethos of that company to the commute.

“I love SpaceX. The vision was huge. The team was super smart. I was able to be part of something — a team that built a rocket and a spaceship that went to the space station and back to earth on purpose,” BamBrogan said. “I wanted to turn my skills back to Earth. I’m a big fan of Elon’s mission to Mars but I just wanted to make Earth better.”

©2017 The Denver Post Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.