Innovation and Mass Transit: the TransPod brief

A subway that runs at the speed of sound? That’s the bold claim made by Canadian startup TransPod when speaking to a room full of inquisitive journalists, students, venture capitalists and industrialists at the Arts et Métiers Hotel in Paris on June 20. Founded in 2015, TransPod is expounding upon the Hyperloop concept with hopes of reshuffling commercial transit maps starting in 2025.

A new mode of transportation to compete with planes and trains

TransPod is taking on Elon Musk’s widely publicized concept whereby pods are propelled over layers of air through a partial-vacuum tube claiming it can correct its presumed flaws. For example, instead of shooting the pod through a tube at 10 Pa, it wants to raise the pressure to 100 Pa to streamline the infrastructure, even if it means increasing the per-vehicle energy consumption. Another preference that sets it apart from competitorHyperloop One is that TransPod is developing an active levitation system that would reduce jerk for better passenger comfort.

The goal is to build an interurban transit system of pods that can accommodate roughly 30 passengers and travel at speeds of up to 758 mph with a lower carbon footprint and ticket price than airplanes. They have been looking at a link between Montreal and Toronto. TransPod also believes its system would realistically be able to compete with road freight on heavy traffic routes.

In 2016, TransPod raised $20.2 million in seed money from the Italian investment fund Angelo Investments and began talks with transit agencies and industry players for a Series A round of $50 million that could become a reality this fall. The company plans to have prototypes ready in 2020 and be fully operational between 2025 and 2030.

From futuristic concept vehicle to resilient mass transit system

It is hard not to admire the determination of TransPod’s founders to get their idea off the ground and forge partnerships between industry and the financial world. But there still remain open questions on the system’s technical and economic viability. Their answers to audience questions on that balmy June evening were not always reassuring. For example: When traveling at a speed of 758 mph, can you ensure a 90-second headway? Could passengers withstand deceleration in case of emergency braking? How to manage pods U-turn at the end of the trip?Who will fund the infrastructure?

Indeed, speed isn’t everything and TransPod is realizing that the propulsion breakthrough requires many other not-so-sexy inventions like reasonable ways to evacuate passengers if the system goes down. This lack of a systemwide view is a peculiarity we often see in startups proposing disruptive transportation technology: SeaBubbles definitely hit Viva Tech by storm when it unveiled its first bubble, but now it has to come up with a turnkey system that includes charging and special safety docks designed for mass transit;skyTran, whose two-passenger monorail pods were supposed to crisscross the skies of Tel Aviv, didn’t take off. Its founder, a NASA veteran, may have overlooked the fact that while an Apollo mission only has to work perfectly once, a public transportation system has to operate flawlessly and safely millions of times.

That’s in contrast to the rail system — and its trusty sidekick the wheel-on-rail principle. Though often chided for being stuck in the past, its undeniable decades of experience regarding operation and degraded modes management operating a system are the cornerstone of a resilient and sound public transit system.

Thus, in an environment where vehicles like buses and subways have virtually become commodities, the know-how integrators have about operating a mass transit system over time seems to be a majordifferentiator. Yet like all legacy businesses, they struggle to innovate.

What’s inspiring about TransPod’s venture?

A healthy dose of skepticism about the Hyperloop system isn’t actually a valid reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Like TransPod CEO Sébastien, who humbly considered people’s comments so he could improve upon his idea, let’s focus on how we can be inspired by TransPod and others.

To begin with, the few million dollars they raised should enable the startup to complete some work packages. Its main advantage is to start from scratch, whereas traditional manufacturers have to deal with a legacy wich is both treasured and unwieldy. TransPod CTO Ryan doesn’t get bogged down in the principles of railway signalling. He catapults himself into a world where pods will be communicating with each other through artificial intelligence and veillance flux. Some compelling technology bricks will likely emerge from this R&D.

Next, TransPod is managing to attract industrials that probably see it as an opportunity to design out of the box. For example, Liebherr-Aerospace has just signed a contract to engineer the cabin system and IKOS is taking over the propulsion system. This deserves recognition at a time when corporates struggle to implement successful open innovation models.

Lastly, the way TransPod is insisting upon passenger experience may not just be a tactic to hide its technological flaws. The approach reminds us how fundamental it is to tease riders. if we want mass transit system to remain the backbone of mobility in the future.

From that perspective, it’s easier to understand that the two worlds cited here — startups with futuristic transportation projects and conventional mass transit players — are more complementary than adversarial.

True disruption probably lies at their crossroads.