An exclusive interview with Nick Earle, former SVP Global Field Operations, Virgin Hyperloop One
Nick Earle is the former SVP of Global Field Operations for Virgin Hyperloop One – the leading company in the race to build the first new mode of transportation since the airplane in 1903. Hyperloop is a new form of ground transportation, which will see passengers travelling at 700 miles per hour in floating pods within low-pressure tubes. As part of his role Nick led all worldwide Sales and Business Development activities with governments, engineering companies, consultants and regulators. During his tenure the company secured the first Hyperloop projects in the market with Engineering activities in the Middle East, India, the Nordics, the US and a research and development facility in Spain.
Before Virgin Hyperloop One, Earle worked for some of the biggest names in IT during his career, for brands such as Cisco where he ran the $11bn Services Sales organization & was responsible for their global cloud go-to-market strategy and Hewlett Packard where he ran Worldwide Enterprise Marketing.
Read this exclusive interview to hear Earle discuss Hyperloop, the disruption of the manufacturing sector and the future of transportation.
You were about to retire when the opportunity to be part of the Hyperloop adventure came along. Why did you decide to embark on this journey?
It’s true that after Cisco I thought I would do the usual Board type work and not take on a full time role. But when I went to the Nevada Desert and actually saw the Hyperloop prototype I was hooked. Some people saw a transportation system but all I could think of was that this will be the next version of the internet. That might sound crazy but it’s essentially physical packet switching where the packets are things rather than bits – the individual pods are the packets and they go down tubes at very high speed just as digital packets go down fibre. I knew from my time at Cisco how revolutionary the internet was and how much people didn’t appreciate its potential in the early days so I thought ‘retirement can wait – I’m in’!
The arrival of the Hyperloop could totally revolutionise the transportation sector globally. What are the reactions of people and society so far, is it mostly excitement or skepticism?
It’s both. Around the time that Elon Musk wrote the original Hyperloop white paper he said ‘when people first hear about the Hyperloop they have one of two reactions either this will never work or it’s so obvious why haven’t we done this before now?’ and I think that sums up the mix of reactions pretty well. But, after two years out there in the market doing hundreds of speeches and dozens of Government meetings I have clearly seen the pendulum swinging from skepticism to early belief. The key moment was when the Mumbai to Pune project was announced and the Chief Minister of Maharashtra State talked about how they would collapse the one way journey time from 3 hours to 30 minutes in 5 -7 years. Suddenly this was real and the sceptics started to melt away.
A new promotional video has recently been unveiled, showing the Virgin Hyperloop One shipping goods “at the speed of flight”, with the new cargo brand DP World Cargospeed. Is society ready for such a disruption to the manufacturing sector?
It’s not only ready it’s well overdue. We’re still shipping goods in a metal container on the back of a slow moving truck just as we did in the mid fifties. Since then commerce has moved online and we now want packages on demand the same day. DP World Cargo Speed could deliver a package anywhere in India, the Middle East or the US in 6 hours or less. Think of what that could do to take millions of trucks off the road around the world. Less congestion, less pollution, better track and trace and no need for all those warehouses whose sole purpose is to buffer stock outside major cities. Just like the internet this will massively disrupt legacy business processes and Supply Chain Distribution is just one.
When do you think Hyperloop will transport its first passengers? And what are the biggest challenges the Industry faces until then?
Subject to regulatory approval we could see the first passengers travel by 2023. Freight could well be earlier as there are less regulatory hurdles. The biggest challenges are raising the capital to fund the engineering, building the key system components including the IT control platform and gaining regulatory approval. Demand is not a problem – in my time we had 2600 applications for project work.
There seem to be concerns about the safety mechanisms in the Hyperloop system. How would you respond to such concerns?
This is a big subject and hard to do it justice in a short form like this but essentially most accidents in all forms of transportation systems are caused by human error. This is one of the reasons why autonomous cars are going to dominate – software gets better every day, humans don’t. Hyperloop is fully autonomous and, don’t forget, it runs inside a tube and so does not cross the path of other modes of transportation like trains do at level crossings where most accidents occur.
Finally, how do you think Hyperloop will make a billion people’s lives better?
The average person spends four years of their life travelling for business and pleasure. And if you think that is bad consider the fact that in emerging markets the figure is 6 years. That’s terrible and unfortunately the figures are getting worse. In my own country, the UK, the terrible state of the rail system and the increasing delays are front page news. It is clear that we have reached the tipping point where no matter how much money we spend there’s a limit to how much improvement we can squeeze out of an analogue based system that was designed 200 years ago. In fact, I believe that it will continue to degrade no matter what we do or spend. Hyperloop holds out the promise to give people time back in ways that they can only imagine. For example, instead of spending six hours a day commuting back and forth from Mumbai to Pune they can get 5 hours a day back enabling them to get home earlier to see the children before they go to bed, choose to work longer hours to earn the money to feed the family or to realise their dreams. Apply that to the world and Hyperloop will truly change the lives of a billion people.
Watch Nick Earle’s recent TEDx talk on Hyperloop
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Credit picture: Youtube screenshot from Ted Talk video here