PARIS—The very first full-scale Hyperloop project is breaking ground in Toulouse, France. I got the news directly from Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) Chairman Bibop G. Gresta at the Autonomy/Urban Mobility Summit here.
I was moderating a panel, and Gresta was here to deliver a super-caffeinated spiel on the manifold benefits of Hyperloop—inspired by Elon Musk’s white paper vision, and taken up by tech entrepreneurs and engineers around the world. Last month, I met with university students in the Netherlands who’d won Musk’s student competition to build a workable Hyperloop capsule.
HTT is one of the biggest and best funded of the startups, with sales (for feasibility studies and such) in 20 countries, and $100 million in investments. In Toulouse, he said, “The tubes have been ordered.” A second big project is in Abu Dhabi, whose government is a big HTT investor. A tube is to connect the capital city to Al Ain, covering the more than 100-mile distance in something like nine to 12 minutes. “It’s not even two cities anymore,” Gresta said. The trains (if we can call them that) travel at 745 miles per hour, using magnetic propulsion in a sealed tube.
A rival group wants to run a Hyperloop between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. They’ve got the money, and it’s kind of ironic that it comes from oil. Gresta claims the Abu Dhabi Hyperloop operation will be net energy positive, thanks to solar panels along the desert route.
The conference was exciting, in part because it had some of the most interesting exhibitors I’ve seen at these events. They included a cool new city EV (with the one door doubling as the front of the car, like the BMW Isetta), bike and car sharers, mobile bike repair, range extenders for electric vehicles (a small gas engine in a towed trailer), solar cars, and a whole lot more.
Paris is a good location, because (like New York) it is majority (63 percent) car free. City bikes (many with electric motors) and scooters are everywhere, the Metro connects to the airport, and there are streetcars on every corner. It’s also full of entrepreneurs interested in starting sharing businesses.
Still, the traffic in from Charles de Gaulle airport was terrible. So it’s fitting that Paris is also where Uber made another big announcement. Some panelists spoke up asking that big companies like Uber, Lyft and Google be more transparent with their data, and Adam Gromis, public policy manager of sustainability and environmental impact at Uber, said the company is doing just that.
Uber announced Engage, which is a website offering historical travel-time data (based on its own travel) in seven cities, Paris plus our fair city of Boston, Washington, D.C., Bogota, Johannesburg/Pretoria and Sydney, Australia. It was, as Gromis admitted, a bit wonkish, but still useful for journalists like me, who can actually dial in the traffic impact of major news (such as big sports events) or weather on traffic patterns. Still, we are going to want more than just travel times, and Gromis said he would deliver more.
Those were the big gun announcements, but there was lots of fascinating information and start-up news in Paris. Sture Portvick, EV Project Leader in Oslo, said that Norway is continuing its leadership ways. Close to 46 percent of new car sales in Norway are now EVs, the world record. More electrics are sold than diesels, which is saying something in Europe. I wanted to ask what effect lifting the massive subsidies might have (in Denmark, sales dropped like a stone) but didn’t get a chance.
A big problem in Norway is lines at the 240-volt charging stations, which other countries will face as EVs attain their majority. If there was anything everyone in Paris (including my panel on the future of on-demand mobility, featuring Uber, the French drone agency and Airbus) agreed on, it is that tomorrow’s cars will be electric, autonomous and connected.
You may not have heard of TravelCar, founded in 2012, but you will. I sat down with North American CEO Gui Bulaty, who outlines a rather innovative business plan that has taken off in 40 countries. Essentially, it’s long-term parking but with a big difference. Your car doesn’t have to just sit while you’re in the friendly skies—it can be working for you in a car-sharing operation.
In April, TravelCar (in partnership with Free2Move, a mobility arm of the French car giant PSA) announced that it was starting its sharing operations in Los Angeles, its first U.S. program. San Francisco is next, then other U.S. cities.
Kiosks (with operators thousands of miles away) will take travelers through the process in the off-hours. Your parking becomes free, even if your car isn’t shared, and you get a 15 to 20 cents per mile fee if it is taken. Don’t worry, you’re insured—as you are when using personal car sharing.
I also talked to Simon Lonsdale, vice president for business development at ChargePoint, which has 70 percent of the U.S. public charging stations. We agreed that the U.S.—still the major innovator in the space—has nonetheless lost its throne as the electric vehicle sales leader. Last year, the U.S. saw 130,000 EV sales, but in China it was 300,000, and the disparity is likely to grow.
Unless, of course, the Tesla Model 3 fulfills its sales promise. Lonsdale said that one model is “helping pull the industry forward.” The U.S. is still showing signs of life. Lonsdale lives in Los Gatos, California, where 20 percent of new car sales are electric now.
A key to making EVs work is extending their range, and that process is well under way. A company like Nawa Technologies, based in Aix en Provence, France, can probably help. It makes state-of-the-art ultracapacitors, which have some similarities to batteries but charge much faster, and also discharge quickly. In EVs, they're good for quick bursts of power, and CEO Ulrik Grape (who I know from his days at EnerDel, making batteries for electric Volvos) thinks they can work in concert with packs to extend range.
Lonsdale also acknowledged Sweden as a major new EV market. Sweden’s environmental minister wants to ban gas cars by 2030, and the country wants to go carbon neutral by 2040. Norway, a big oil and gas producer of course, wants to see the end of tailpipes by 2025
A phrase I hadn’t heard before, widely used here in Paris, is the concept of “free floating” car and bike sharing. That means uncoupled from stations—you can leave them anywhere, and the apps will find them for the next renter. Many of the bikes and scooter startups showing in Paris are “uncoupled” in that way.
A solar car would also be “uncoupled”—from any kind of charging. The Dutch startup Lightyear, which I’d earlier seen in the Netherlands, was also in Paris. They’re talking about wheel motors in a very lightweight chassis to make a five-passenger car that could actually run on solar when the sun is shining. Another key is a very wide roof for the panels, which means a tapering design.
In Hawaii, Lightyear says you could cover 20,000 kilometers per year, powered only by the sun. It does mystify me why sun-friendly places like Hawaii don’t switch to 100 percent solar and wind power, and electric cars.
Wunder Carpool, based in Germany, is a neat idea. Lukas Loers told me, “Two hundred million people are stuck in traffic today in the world's most gridlocked cities.” You’ve probably heard of the 12-day jam in China, well there was one in France that lasted even longer. Wunder is addressing that by offering carpooling via smartphone in legendarily crammed cities like Jakarta and Manila (where commuting is four or five hours per day). Unfortunately, there’s not much money in the small commissions, so they’re looking at using advertising on the app.
I loved the little Addax electric truck, which is being used to move goods, food and parcels in Belgium, Sweden, Portugal and France. With an 80-kilowatt-hour battery, the Belgium-sourced truck can go up to 100 miles on a charge. It’s strictly for in-city use, a “last-mile” delivery solution.
It was good to see a bit of New York energy from Jannette Sadik-Khan, transportation chief when Michael Bloomberg was mayor. She called her book Street Fight, because that’s what was necessary to transform New York’s boulevards to be more people friendly. There are now 60 pedestrian-friendly plazas in the five boroughs, including the iconic Times Square. And New York is now vastly more cycle-friendly, thanks to Citibike and hundreds of miles of bike lanes.
The Isetta-like car I mentioned earlier is from the Swiss company Micro, which is famous for kick scooters. The Microlina car started as an attention-getter for shows (with a prototype made in China) but it got people so excited they decided to actually produce it. The two-seater weighs only 800 pounds, with a fiberglass body.
The Microlina can travel 60 miles on a charge, and hit 60 mph. It’s a city car, not likely to hit American highways. The car will be built in Italy, and goes on sale in Switzerland next year, priced at 15,000 euros ($17,600). Here’s a look at it on video: