Exclusive First Look at Richard Branson’s Hyperloop Propulsion Pods

With a never-before-seen passenger experience, Virgin Hyperloop promises speeds of up to 600 miles per hour, making a trip from L.A. to San Francisco in under 45 minutes

When Richard Branson first described the Hyperloop concept back in 2012, he spoke of a new mode of mass transportation that would cut travel time significantly. With speeds of up to 600 miles per hour, a trip from L.A. to San Francisco would be complete in under 45 minutes; Stockholm to Helsinki in about 30. Nearly 10 years later, Virgin Hyperloop—one of several companies working on hyperloop technology—is closing in on making the future of travel less futuristic.

Designing an entirely new form of mass transit, of course, is just as complex, if not more so, than making it function. “It’s about far more than getting from one place to another, but it is also that,” says Sara Luchian, head of passenger experience at Virgin Hyperloop, which gave AD an exclusive first look at the design and architecture involved in creating the Hyperloop “pods.” “There’s no question that some people will ride for the novelty, but we have to assume that people will ride more than once. And in that case, you don’t want bells and whistles every day. We had to balance what we could have created with what we should create. When people are putting faith in new technology they’re not accustomed to, they don’t necessarily want to feel impressed. They want to feel familiar.”

To that end, design was approached with the goal of creating something that, above all, aimed to communicate safety and comfort, and which would not force humans to adapt to it—approachable sounds, fresh air (or the scent of it), natural light, greenery. That involved working to convey messages and even emotions in a multisensory way, “acknowledging that the visual is important but not the only thing,” says Luchian, who oversaw a design team that included Seattle-based design firm Teague for design of the interior pods; sonic studio Man Made Music, which handled sound design; and olfactive branding firm 12.29, which created smell design. Copenhagen, London, Barcelona, and New York–based design group BIG, led by Bjarke Ingels, oversaw the look and feel of the stations, or “portals.”

One major challenge for all teams was the trains’ total lack of windows. “Other than elevators, most people have not experienced a moving windowless space,” says Clint Rule, the creative director at Teague, which implemented a dynamic ambient lighting system to visually open up the space, simulate the time of day, and create a subtle sense of forward motion. An interplay of neutral lights and darks, meanwhile, worked to mitigate the typical chaotic and overwhelming commuter experience. A large virtual “skylight” created ambient sunlight, made to adjust during a trip’s progress to help ease passengers through the journey. “Our design centered on instilling trust and confidence to continually reassure and affirm passengers,” says Rule. “That meant combining familiar nods from other types of transportation alongside unexpected touch points for something new yet intuitive. It couldn’t be so sci-fi or alien that passengers wouldn’t know how to respond or orient themselves to the experience.”

Another limiting factor was the pods’ compact size. Teague aimed to optimize the space by dividing it into two zones: a “moment” zone, where passengers can freely move about the interior, and a “static” zone, where passengers can relax in their seats or socialize with one another. Seats were recessed “into” the floor—straddling the mechanical and HVAC systems, with a center aisle at “ground level”—to alleviate any sense of claustrophobia and afford an additional seven inches of seated headroom.

To create the auditory experience, Man Made Music researched how sound can play a role in improved health and wellness. The firm employed sonic techniques such as reverb to make the pods feel larger and to alleviate the friction and anxiety associated with high-speed travel. “The right sound can solve a myriad of issues, from privacy and motion sickness to evoking a sense of safety and calm,” says Joel Beckerman, Man Made Music’s founder and lead composer. “The sonic language of the Hyperloop instills confidence, safety, and clarity—you ‘feel’ it rather than ‘hear’ it.” If you hear a certain rhythm, points out Luchian, your heartbeat may sync to that cadence, and when people’s heartbeats are similar to one another, they can sync up, too, which creates calm as well.

The user interface sounds, meanwhile, connect passengers with intuitive gestures, guiding them through the experience and drawing only minimally on what Beckerman calls “legacy sounds,” such as the ding of a door signaling you’ve arrived. “We knew we got it right when you don’t notice the sound at all: The interface is humanized in ways that are both fresh and familiar,” he says.

The teams have, of course, made some adjustments due to COVID-19, even though Hyperloop isn’t expected to debut for another five years, at least. “By then, we will have beat the virus, but public health will always be an important feature,” says Luchian. “And so the design will be responsive to real-time changing conditions.” The means by which Hyperloop achieves that end can change as tech changes—maybe it’s fewer people per pod, says Luchian, or perhaps new sounds to meet passengers’ evolving needs. “But, overall, we aspire to a warm, human-centric optimistic future,” she says, “and not the sterile, cold, off-putting environment that has become the hallmark of so much transportation. That’s coming to an end.”