HS2 vs. Hyperloop: Good luck to the crazies!

HS2 vs. The Hyperloop: Good luck to the crazies!

There is nothing like the lure of visionary, comic-like ideas of how we might travel, but it is government that is providing us with immediate workable solutions in the world of transport. It’s questionable whether ‘immediacy’ is the right measure here, but nonetheless it’s worth confronting the differences between these two projects.

Transport solutions are highly contentious. They affect people in all manner of ways, from jobs created to disruptions to residential areas. But, beyond the direct impact of new transport infrastructure there is the simple fact that we haven’t yet discovered a clean and safe way to transport large groups of people.

Our dominant commuting method, the car, (as well as other road transport) represents over 10% of our carbon footprint and kills over a million people per year. Against this backdrop, a networked system of driverless electric or solar powered vehicles begins to become an idea worth taking seriously. Jaime Lerner, President of Latin American Integrated Transport Systems, working on developing an integrated system of transport to the exclusion of road vehicles, labels the car as the cigarette of the future, “you can use it but people will be annoyed by you”. Likewise, air traffic and pollution via short-haul travel is of increasing concern.

Add to this, a growing and highly mobile population with increasing transportation needs and we get into a situation, as we have in our major cities today, of a dated train service carrying 4,000 people into Euston standing and a further 5,000 people arriving standing into Birmingham each day.

If ever, there was an industry in need of innovation, transport would be the first in line. Enter HS2 and Hyperloop.

On 23 October 2015, I went to a Construct/Disrupt event, on the theme of ‘Transport to the Future’ and listened to various speakers, (including teams from HS2 and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT)).

One such speaker, Bibop Gresta, looked like he had come to us directly from the future, wearing an apple watch on each wrist as he introduced the Hyperloop. It was a slick presentation, full of artist renderings, neat videos and awe-inspiring moments of what could-be.

It started with a vision, inter-city transport needs to be re-thought. We need to replace air travel between major cities, relieve the congestion plaguing our current transportation routes and we need to achieve this at a fraction of the price and at great convenience for consumers.

The grand idea is to transport 28-people per capsule, in a tube-like system at over 700mph, and in total, transporting over 24 million people between San Francisco and LA over five years, once up-and-running. The capacity of the system will allow 3400 people to be transported daily. Bibop, suggested that in the UK connecting London and Glasgow would be there aim.

Whilst he didn’t go to far into the technical details of how the system would function, he quickly laid out his case for the Hyperloop over other solutions. The Hyperloop is set to cost $10billion and will begin building a test track of 8km in Quay Valley in California. A location in of itself which the company says will become a city of the future, trailing new greener and healthier methods of transport and urban living. ‘We’re not hippies, just badass environmentalists’ he says, as he declares quay valley a world-first.

The track itself will be fashioning the world’s longest advertising board, which will enable the company to consider low or no fare travel. Part of the gearing-up (in financial terms) of this private sector project has been the enrollment of 500 engineers volunteering a minimum of 10 hours of their time in exchange for stock options.

Elon Musk introduced the world to the Hyperloop, following which a number of new organisations have been born. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), represented by Gresta on the night, seems to have come most further along working closely with a number of organisations such as NASA, UCLA and SpaceX.

HS2, a little less sexy, having not been conjured up by the guy that is going to get us to Mars, promises us less innovation and is a juggernaut of a project in comparison. Needless to say after the presentations, many in the room commented that ‘HS2 hasn’t even started and yet, it already feels out-of-date’.

HS2, is going to cost near £50billion, with an updated expected in the Chancellor’s budget announcement later this year. It will take until 2026 (having been approved in 2012) to be completed; however there have already been announcement updates to plans extending onto 2033 to develop Euston as the connecting London station. This already sounds typical of a government project – excruciatingly high costs and changing parameters.

But even this government-led project, started with an ambitious vision – It was to connect 8 out of 10 major UK cities, serving 1 in 5 of the UK population, taking 9.8million journeys off the roads and 5.4million journeys out of the skies.

HS2’s version of Quay Valley is to work with local planning authorities up and down country, which have commitments and responsibilities to their local constituents (unlike the quay valley) in developing a multi-stakeholder approach in how best to benefit from and work with the HS2 initiative. Whilst this has been contentious, there are small hints of some communities using this as an opportunity to be genuinely innovative in local planning. And this seems to be the big divider between government-run projects and Hyperloop-like ideas. Such projects require complex stakeholder management, engagement with existing systems and infrastructure and real specifics, at which point, such projects begin to engage a more critical public. As one such attendee at the event put it, ‘you can do all the colorful drawings you want, everything changes when you start buying the concrete’.

HTT presented a technology which although untested represents an idea that is trying to make an improvement that is a 100* better than what currently exists in the industry. This 100* vs. 10* better idea is a frequent measure when looking at technologies and new technology investments, particularly as a point of analysis by venture capitalists of new tech start-ups. But, for the non-techies in the room, the reason the Hyperloop was so interesting was because it was completely unimaginable as a form of travel, sitting on the periphery of our ideas of transport and instead representing a new experiential opportunity – with details such as giant windows that operate as web-enabled interfaces that we’re not able to contextualise. (Though, we have had a go at supersonic air travel via the Concorde and it turned out we didn’t need it, or at least, it wasn’t economical enough to be a feasible long-term solution.)

The HS2 on the other hand, does not boast the launch of a whole new city or that it will run on a blended system of solar and kinetic energy, which HTT are developing through its volunteer team of 500 engineers worldwide (who each have to deliver a minimum of 10hours of work a week in exchange for stock options).

HS2, isn’t actually an innovation project, it’s a catch-up project. Many other countries are well ahead in the use of high-speed rail, not least in continental Europe, where many of our G8 counter-parts are well-ahead of the UK.

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Taxpayers, civil service and government – the real machinery of innovation?

The taxpayers, civil service and government – the real machinery of innovation?

If one was to believe Peter Thiel’s version of where innovation comes from, you’d think public sector-driven innovation has flat-lined whilst the private sector has been, and is, leading the charge to make ‘real’ things happen.

This was my take away when, as a civil servant, I was sitting in the Cabinet Office listening to Peter Thiel’s address on how we can unlock innovation in the economy. This took place in Spring 2015 as civil servants began evaluating their operations in preparation for the Spending Review.

It has been no surprise that this government has concentrated its efforts on reducing spending, but in its attempt to stimulate growth it is also narrowing the role of government itself. This ‘narrowing of government’ isn’t a by-product or accident but a deliberate course of action, taking us closer to a new paradigm where the state is reduced to acting only in the event of market failure with no positive role of its own.

This line of thinking could have major repercussions for the world of science and technology as we know it. Take the Research Excellence Framework (REF), an assessment of UK research that is conducted every six years, by which research funding is allocated to universities. In the eyes of many, this is a monolithic and bureaucratic system and costs the taxpayer £246million, against £10.2billion in funding which is allocated using the framework results.

It is exactly activities like these that are under scrutiny, with some labelling the REF as a cloak of inefficiencies in the sector. If the government backed away would this lead to better models of self-financed research at universities? Could private sector organisations fill the gap on the research the economy needs?

The theory is that if government no longer engages in long-term meddling but reacts only as a corrective force, the country as a whole can operate with greater efficiency, prosperity and spend less of the taxpayers’ money.

Sounds good, right? But this isn’t how states function. Innovation does not come from not investing. The “new normal” will have a direct impact on the future of science, technology and our potential economic upside.

Mariana Muzzcato addresses this in her book The Entrepreneurial State, where she cites many examples in sectors as diverse as biotech, green tech, pharmaceuticals, where governments have led the way in making risky investments that the private sector has otherwise shied away from. One of the most well-known of those is Siri, the voice interface technology used in Apple’s iPhone, an innovation that was funded by the US government.

Far from the traditional picture that is too often painted, Muzzcato argues that it is government, rather than the private sector, that is most likely to take a ‘leap of faith’ and stimulate the growth of new industries and sectors.

What technologists such as Peter Thiel, Eric Schmidt and others forget is that they are beneficiaries of knowledge spillover – whereby government investments in universities and other institutions has led to the creation of new ideas and knowledge that have then been commercialised, give birth to the likes of Google.

It should worry us then, that as the government works to meet its deficit reduction targets major channels of research funding, such as the core Science Budget, which supports university-based research, may not be immune. We will learn more on 25 November, but in the meanwhile there are other questions for the research community and policy-makers to consider that may explain how we arrived at this state.

The private sector has always been notoriously good at lobbying government in support of narrow interests. It is commonplace for industries to achieve tax exemptions, subsides on new products and support for dying industries such as heavy steel manufacturing. In contrast, the research community is seen less frequently within Whitehall to press upon issues that most affect them.

It is also well documented that our elected representatives within Parliament often come from private sector backgrounds, including lawyers, corporate professionals and investors with little to no representation from the research and science professions. George Osbourne says that the public sector is ‘crowding out’ the private sector, but, ironically, it is perhaps the voice of publically funded scientists and researchers that are least heard today. What’s more, with the ongoing cuts in government departments, the civil service may not have the capacity to think critically about the needs of science and enterprise.

The story of innovation and its relationship to state funding is increasingly told by private sector technologists. At a time when the civil service is being shrunk and state spending is under review the scientific community need to have a proactive and authoritative voice in describing their achievements and visions for the future of research.