- Virgin Hyperloop’s CEO Jay Walder has a wealth of transit experience – but his next job is launching him into the unknown.
- After running subways around the world and the bike-share company that was just bought by Lyft, Walder is now tasked with turning hyperloop from a dream into reality.
- In an interview, Walder compared the innovation to the invention of the national highway system, and says we’ll see a full-scale, public hyperloop project within 10 years.
Jay Walder has always worked in transportation – but never on this scale.
The 59-year-old took over as chief executive of Virgin Hyperloop One in November, after stints running transit agencies in New York, London, and Hong Kong. Most recently, he was head of Motivate – the company behind bike-sharing programs in some of the US’ largest cities – before its sale to Lyft earlier this year.
Now, he’s been tasked with making Elon Musk’s dream of whisking people through tubes at hundreds of miles per hour into a reality.
“We’re at a pivot point,” Walder said in an interview with Business Insider. “We are moving to be a true transportation company and we’re going to deliver real projects.”
So far, the company has proven the technology can work – at least in small scale. In 2016, a 500-meter prototype hit 116 mph in the Nevada desert, marking the first major test of the technology since SpaceX-sponsored competition began.
For its next feat, Virgin Hyperloop has its eyes set on a larger, 11-kilometer test track that will eventually be part of a full-scale project. It won’t be full speed just yet, Walder said, but is “enough distance to be able to demonstrate the entire system, and to be able to go through all the safety certifications and other pieces like that.”
That test could come in Missouri, where an independent firm last month completed a feasibility study of a hyperloop parallel to Interstate 70, the state’s main East-West artery connecting Kansas City and St. Louis. Currently, that route takes more than three hours by car. Virgin Hyperloop says it can cut the journey to 30 minutes.
It’s also a symbolic route for Virgin Hyperloop given the Interstate Highway System’s roots in Missouri with Route 66.
“The creation of the interstate highway system went alongside the development of the automobile and it had an enormous impact on the way we thought about the spaces in our country,” Walder said. “This is about creating the first new transportation technology in over a hundred years.”
Other possible locations include India, between Mumbai and Pune; the Rocky Mountains, from Colorado to Texas; Los Angeles to San Diego, California; Chicago to Pittsburgh; and Saudi Arabia. The company is also in talks with a major European country, Walder said, but could offer no further details.
The Arabian Gulf, though, could be tricky.
Both Virgin Hyperloop One and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were quick to tout a partnership – or at least a verbal one – earlier this year, geared at connecting cities like Riyadh, Jedda and Abu Dhabi.
But after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi Arabian consulate, Sir Richard Branson, who was still a director on Virgin Hyperloop’s board at the time, said Virgin would suspend discussions with the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund. That lead to the termination of a planned deal by the Kingdom, the Financial Times reported.
“There’s an opportunity and excitement about doing Hyperloop in the Gulf Region that cuts across the GCC countries,” Walder said of the drama “especially the potential of shrinking some of the distances that are there. I don’t think it’s just a Saudi question in terms of doing it and I’d still like to see us figure out how to be able to bring Hyperloop to the Gulf.”
Branson has since departed from Virgin Hyperloop’s board, replaced by Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, the CEO of Dubai’s port manager DP World which is also the company’s largest investor.
Regardless of which Gulf countries actually end up pursuing a hyperloop investment, Walder said he will be there, ready to work alongside the government to change its thinking around traditional infrastructure spending.
“We hear about infrastructure all the time,” Walder said. “But we’re always talking about 2 things: how to fix what we’ve already built, and how to do more of what we already have done. Neither one of those are incredibly imaginative.”
“What we’re talking about now is a whole other leap. It’s about creating the first new transportation technology in over a hundred years.”
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