The Future Is Now: Virgin Hyperloop CEO Josh Giegel On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up Zero Emission Transportation
…I’d like to flip that question by saying that there would be serious drawbacks without hyperloop technology, environmental collapse being perhaps the most critical. I know Black Mirror paints a dystopian picture of technology, but I would offer that the world is headed straight for a calamitous future if we can’t use technology to reverse pollution and carbon emissions. Hyperloop technology is a direct means of addressing the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions — the transportation sector. And I’d like to add that hyperloop transports goods as well as people. Imagine what the environment would be like without so many cargo vehicles.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs. I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Giegel.
Josh is the CEO and Co-Founder of Virgin Hyperloop, where he is leading a world-class team of engineers making the hyperloop a reality. Giegel founded the company in 2014, when hyperloop was an idea drawn on a whiteboard in a garage. Previously, at SpaceX, Josh developed the world’s first reusable rockets and led the successful testing of six different rocket engines. Josh received an MS in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University where he was a Graduate Engineering Fellow. He holds a BSME from Penn State University where he graduated with honors and was first in his class.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in a family of engineers, so as a kid we would take these dorky vacations to the Space Museum. I was in awe of the rockets and the team that put the first man on the moon, and I dreamed that someday I could create my own rockets. Also, my dad was great at fixing things, and I’d watch him tinker with cars in the garage. From him, I learned a lot about problem-solving and perseverance. I guess it’s natural that I would end up an engineer myself.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
One of my favorite things to do to unwind is cycling. In the early days of Virgin Hyperloop, I was on a bike ride in the Santa Monica mountains here in Southern California. At one point I decided to take a break, and there on the road were a Model T and a Tesla Model S. In that moment, I came to the realization that two cars, almost a century apart in design and concept, could ride on the same road. The road wasn’t doing anything — it’s just a passive thoroughfare. In a similar way, the hyperloop pod — the vehicle that passengers ride in — can ride in the same tube for several decades, despite upgrades in the technology of the actual pod, its battery, etc. That’s when the concept of ‘smart car, dumb road’ was born, and it’s one of the threads in hyperloop’s ability to remain a viable mass mobility mode for 20, 50, 100 years. In this case, it’s ‘smart pod, dumb tube.’
Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that people enjoy being together. And the mission of hyperloop is to forever change the concept of distance and time through sustainable, high-speed travel. With our proprietary magnetic levitation and propulsion systems and our innovative vehicle architecture, we’ve found a way to make high-speed travel so smooth that you can move at speeds approaching 700 mph without spilling a drop of coffee. Hyperloop takes the best of all modes of travel, with none off the pain points. It’s fast like a plane, on-demand like a metro, and convenient like a car. So let’s say you have a friend or relative that lives someplace that’s too far to drive by car, and visiting them involves a plane or rail trip. With hyperloop, you could get from New York City to Washington, DC in the same amount of time it would take you to get from the East Side to Midtown Manhattan. People could live in more affordable, less crowded communities and work in a metropolitan center without distance being a barrier.
How do you think this might change the world?
The most important thing for me, and I’m sure for many of your audience, is ensuring that we leave the planet and environment a better place for the generations to come. Hyperloop has zero direct emissions, and it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by billions of tons. Take for example a hypothetical route between Chicago, Columbus Ohio and my hometown of Pittsburgh. Hyperloop would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.4 million tons. That’s enough to fill almost 1,500 hot air balloons. It’s about sustainability without sacrifice. The job of the engineer is to improve the lives of all through technology without destroying the planet around us.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
I’d like to flip that question by saying that there would be serious drawbacks without hyperloop technology, environmental collapse being perhaps the most critical. I know Black Mirror paints a dystopian picture of technology, but I would offer that the world is headed straight for a calamitous future if we can’t use technology to reverse pollution and carbon emissions. Hyperloop technology is a direct means of addressing the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions — the transportation sector. And I’d like to add that hyperloop transports goods as well as people. Imagine what the environment would be like without so many cargo vehicles.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
I started my career at SpaceX, and I had the opportunity to work with and learn from Elon Musk. When he open-sourced hyperloop technology in his 2013 whitepaper, I was intrigued. As I read the paper and began to realize the potential it had to address a critical gap in mass mobility — we haven’t had a new mode of mass transit in over 100 years — I was determined to find a mathematical way to make it work. Before too long it became an obsession, so much so that I quit my job at Virgin Galactic to devote my time to making hyperloop a reality. Now, seven years later, we are the first company in the world to put passengers on a hyperloop system, and we’re fast on our way to commercializing hyperloop by the end of the decade.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
As humans, we tend to resist the unfamiliar. Sometimes things that we’ve never done before, something that the world has never seen, can seem suspicious or even scary. I can’t imagine what people thought when they saw the first commercial passenger plane. I think world leaders are well aware of the challenges and damage created by current modes of mass mobility. The European Union set an example when it identified hyperloop as a viable mode of mass transit in addressing the race to net zero emissions by 2050. Here in the U.S., our new administration put forth an ambitious infrastructure plan. Widespread adoption can only happen when our governments provide a regulatory framework that facilitates the development and deployment of new technologies. I’m confident that we’re on the right path.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
We’re fortunate to have had such a great response from news media around the world from the start. There was great interest and coverage last November when we successfully put passengers on a hyperloop system at our Nevada test site. That vehicle my colleague Sara and I rode in will be on display at the Smithsonian Museum this fall, in the very same space that gave the world its first glimpse of Edison’s lightbulb, the first telephones and the Apollo rockets.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
One of the most formative experiences I’ve had was during my time leading the Research & Development group at Echogen Power Systems. The CEO of the company watched me give a presentation about our technology to a group of potential customers. At the end of the day he pulled me aside and said, “Josh, I need you to be better.” He noted that while I knew the technology, I wasn’t communicating it effectively to the customer. He wanted me to be able to explain what it was the company did to anyone on the planet, engineer or not, in 5 minutes, or 5 hours. He concluded with, “unless you can do that, you’re no good to us.” He knew the last part would stoke the competitive fire and that I’d see it as a challenge. So I began trying to explain complex pieces of technology to anyone, engineer or otherwise, in a way that they could understand. It was tough at first, but I slowly found my stride. That was such a profound lesson that it continues to help me today. How do you explain something no one has ever seen? That’s what I’ve been doing every day for the past 7 years — taking the vision in my head and communicating it to the world.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am a huge proponent of STEM education, especially for women and girls. My mother, sister and wife are all engineers, and I’d like to see more equity and inclusion in this space. Virgin Hyperloop has a program called BLAST Scholars, in which we award an internship to Black engineering students. We’ve had some amazing students come through the program, some of which became employees after their internships ended.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You’re going to experience a global pandemic — it would have been nice to know that the most critical moment in our company’s history — the first passenger test — would come to a halt because of a virus. It was a great lesson in contingency planning and in making the best of the worst possible circumstances.
- Pay close attention to the things you observe in your non-work life — I was on vacation in southeast Asia and I saw two kids using a flashlight and a cellphone to watch a YouTube video on how to fix their scooter. This left a profound impact about the life-changing power of technology. It was both exciting and humbling. The image of those kids grounds me when things don’t go as planned.
- Trust your instinct, no matter what — I’ve gotten much better at this. Listen to that little voice inside, even if in the moment it’s making no sense at all.
- Disruption is not a bad thing — I’ve learned that the unconventional route is where the magic happens. It takes a lot of creativity and courage to try something no one has done before — I say go for it!
- Persistence is your best friend — I’ve heard a lot of no’s and a lot of ‘it can’t be done’s’ since I started my company. I’ve learned that being persistent is not the same as being obnoxious — for each door that’s closed in your face, persistence is what fuels you to find another door. It’ll be harder than you think to start a company. You have to ask yourself if you have the courage to see it through, despite all the obstacles.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 😊
Time is our most precious resource. We can’t change what we’ve done in the past and how we arrived at this place with regard to climate change. All we can do is change what we do going forward. There is awesome responsibility in that. The decisions we make and the technology we develop today will affect people who aren’t even alive yet. I ride on trains that were created before I was born. What are we going to create today that lives on for future generations? It’s about the power of the engineer to create the future we want. Let’s Terraform Earth!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was younger I had a poster of Muhammad Ali with his famous quote: “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.” Defying the impossible is what I do every day, and it’s what fuels my teams to do what they do best in order to make hyperloop a reality. Physics tells us the it takes energy to move and change things, the energy required to move is proportional to the size of the change you want. The world won’t change unless we change it, impossible will stay impossible and dreams will stay out of reach. The human brain and heart are limitless sources of energy to create change for good — if we each choose to follow our hearts and minds and believe in ourselves, we can create a better world.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
The world has moved forward as we’ve moved faster. Virgin Hyperloop is a new, sustainable mass mobility system that will upend the concept of distance and time. If you think it’s just a faster train, I am about to disappoint you — hyperloop is so much more than that. It combines the best of all modes of travel and none of the worst. We are the first company in the world to put passengers on a hyperloop system. We accomplished that in just 6 years. Imagine what we will do in the next 6 years. Some of the world’s most renowned businesspeople and investors are all in. I encourage you to join us as we launch the decade of hyperloop.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
They can connect with me on LinkedIn and follow me on Twitter: @JoshGiegel