U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao used SXSW to make the announcement. Photo courtesy of Hyperloop One

Creation of a transportation-in-a-tube system that promises to whisk passengers from Houston to Dallas in 30 minutes got a big boost March 12 from the federal government.

During an appearance at SXSW, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said she has established a transportation technology council that will aim to clear regulatory and legal roadblocks for the traffic-busting Virgin Hyperloop One concept and similar transit innovations.

In September 2017, the company behind Hyperloop One picked a 640-mile route in Texas for the initiative. The futuristic system — with passengers riding in pods carried through a massive tube — would connect Houston, Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Laredo, and San Antonio. Hyperloop One would provide two stops each in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas, and one each in Austin, Laredo, and San Antonio.

The north-south leg of Hyperloop One would run between Dallas-Fort Worth and Laredo, while the east-west leg would operate between Houston and San Antonio. As imagined now, a trip between Austin and Dallas would last 19 minutes at speeds up to 670 mph — two to three times faster than high-speed rail and 10 to 15 times faster than traditional rail. A ride from Houston to Austin would take 21 minutes, while a trek from Houston to San Antonio would last 26 minutes.

"Texas is exploring how to make hyperloop a reality at the state and local level, but federal support is a huge key for us to be certified and successful," Ryan Kelly, head of marketing and communications for Virgin Hyperloop One, tells CultureMap. "It is exciting that the federal government is recognizing us as a potential new mode of transportation that can be a leap forward for America. Hopefully, Texas can be a first mover."

Aside from Texas, Virgin Hyperloop One has U.S. projects underway in Colorado, Missouri, and the Chicago-Columbus-Pittsburgh corridor. Virgin Group, led by Sir Richard Branson, is among the investors in Hyperloop One.

The federal council unveiled at SXSW will help fast-track a first-of-its-kind transportation network in the U.S. that shares components with trains, planes, and self-driving vehicles. Members of the council will explore technological innovations, such as transit tunnels and self-driving vehicles, in the quest to speed up development of Virgin Hyperloop One and other emerging modes of mass transportation.

"Hyperloop is a new mode of transportation that is built for the 21st century," Jay Walder, CEO of Virgin Hyperloop One, says in a release. "We want to be the company that spearheads the next giant leap forward in transportation here in the United States, but we know we can't do it alone."

Kelly says it's unclear when Texas passengers might be able to travel on Virgin Hyperloop One's network, but the company hopes the first route — wherever it may be — will be ready by the end of 2028.

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This story originally ran on CultureMap.

ElecTrip uses eco-friendly Teslas to shuttle business people to and fro across the state. Courtesy of Electrip

Texas startup using Tesla cars for more efficient and eco-friendly travel

Rethinking roadtrips

A Texas startup shuffling business men and women across the state in style has created an elevated road trip experience for its customers.

Founded in 2018 and based in Austin, ElecTrip aims to add luxury and convenience to regional commutes between major Texas cities by providing transportation in Teslas equipped with WiFi, complimentary snacks, and professional drivers.

Mandeep Patel, a University of Texas at Austin student, had the idea for the company just about a year ago while completing an internship. Patel had the company up and running just a few months later.

Patel serves as founder and CEO, along with his classmate and co-founder, Eliott Lee, who is COO. Lee tells InnovationMap that he and Patel had gotten tired of the stress of airport travel, the restrictive schedule of buses, and the soul-draining fatigue of driving. ElecTrip's no-compromise solution is cost effective, comfortable, and carbon neutral.

"One thing we really pride ourselves on is being sustainable, energy-efficient, and having no emissions," Lee says.

ElecTrip offers door-to-door service for their customers, who can customize pickup and drop-off locations in any major Texas city. The company has eight routes between Houston, Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio, but customers can book a custom route within a 300-mile radius of those cities. Prices range from $249.99 to $429.99, but customers can opt to share rides to cut down on cost, with cars seating three to five riders.

"We emphasize on B2B, geared more towards businesses," says Lee, explaining that customers can customize their trip with food and beverage requests.

The company offers three different Tesla models: Tesla Model S, Tesla Model X, and Tesla Model 3, each offering a specific number of passenger seats, luggage capacity, and mileage range.

"The main reason why we chose Tesla is because of the supercharger network," says Lee in referring to Tesla's 1,422 Supercharger Stations throughout the United States.

Clients don't have to worry about the charging process, Lee says. The company plans the trips around these charging stations, which are free to any Tesla user.

ElecTrip is less than a year old and has already coordinated hundreds of rides, according to the website. While starting the company while still juggling classes — Lee expects to graduate from UT in 2020, while Patel is graduating this year — Lee says being a student-run startup has its perks.

"We find a lot of funding in startup competitions that only students have access to," said Lee.

Additional initial funding for the company came out of Patel's savings account, Lee says. ElecTrip owns one Tesla and rents out additional vehicles to cover the demand of rides. Lee explains that renting vehicles instead of owning them would cut back on the company's real estate while providing additional income for Tesla owners that aren't using their cars.

Patel and Lee are the only two full-time employees at ElecTrip, as all drivers work on a contract-basis. Lee tells InnovationMap that in the future, ElecTrip will focus on business partnerships.

"A lot of these other services are geared towards consumers," says Lee. "We hope to be geared toward mainly towards businesses in the long run."

ElecTrip is gearing up for growing its partnerships with local small businesses in Austin and Houston to provide food and drink products for rides.

"It is something we're looking at targeting in the next one or two months," says Lee.

Mandeep Patel (left) and Eliott Lee are the co-founders of ElecTrip, a travel company that uses Teslas across Texas.Courtesy of ElecTrip

Virgin Trains may be speeding into Texas. Photo courtesy of Virgin Trains

Transportation company steers talk of high-speed trains between Houston, Austin, and San Antonio

ALL ABOARD?

You've likely heard of the proposed high-speed "bullet" train that would connect Houston and Dallas, as well as the proposed transportation-in-a-tube concept that would link Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Laredo.

Now, another possible alternative to planes, Amtrak trains, and automobiles has chugged into the picture.

Virgin Trains USA, a transportation startup that plans to trade its shares on the Nasdaq stock exchange, is exploring two high-speed routes in Texas — one tying together Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, and the other between Houston and Dallas. All four of those cities are plagued by ever-increasing traffic tie-ups.

There's no word yet on when these routes might take shape. At this point, they're merely ideas, and ahead of the company going public, officials at Virgin Trains are staying mum.

In all, Virgin Trains has outlined seven potential routes in the U.S. beyond what it already has on the drawing board.

"Our goal is to build railroad systems in North America that connect major metropolitan areas with significant traffic and congestion," the company says in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Virgin Trains aims to tie together heavily populated cities separated by 200- to 300-mile distances that are "too long to drive, too short to fly." It wants to run the trains along existing transportation corridors — rail, highway or a combination of the two — "to cost-effectively build our systems, as opposed to developing entirely new corridors at potentially significantly higher costs."

If the Virgin name sounds familiar, it should. British billionaire Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group is a minority investor in Virgin Trains, which already operates a South Florida route between Miami and West Palm Beach. West Palm Beach-to-Orlando and Orlando-to-Tampa routes also are in the works in Florida, in addition to a Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas route. Virgin's other transportation investments include airlines and space travel.

Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, says he's on board with the Branson-backed Virgin Trains venture — not as an "anti-Amtrak" move but as an advancement in U.S. passenger rail travel.

"Speaking from the experience of someone who spent almost his entire career watching Sir Richard innovate, invest, and take risks, I firmly believe this could be a real shot in the arm for passenger rail in the United States," Mathews writes on the association's website. "Like all entrepreneurs, Sir Richard isn't afraid to fail, and he has made a few bad bets in the past. But he's also made some very good ones, and has transformed not just travel but philosophies wherever he has gone."

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This story originally ran on CultureMap.

TxDOT has a new task force focused on keeping Texans informed on self-driving vehicles that are getting road ready. Getty Images

Texas forms task force geared at autonomous vehicle development

Road to unmanned driving

Self-driving cars are en route to Texas, and the state government wants to ensure Texas is ready for the ride. The Texas Department of Transportation announced the creation of a Connected and Autonomous Vehicle Task Force on Jan. 24.

The CAV Task Force will focus on being a comprehensive resource for information on all Texas CAV projects, investments, and initiatives, the press release says. The organization will also host events surrounding CAV progress and education around the topic.

"With our world-class universities, top-notch workforce and startup culture, Texas is a national leader in the development of new technologies," says Gov. Greg Abbott in the release. "As transportation technology advances, the CAV Task Force will ensure that the Lone Star State remains at the forefront of innovation."

TxDOT's interest, the release reports, is in hopes that the self-driving technology will minimize accidents and maximize safety, as well as expand opportunities for residents, especially within the elderly and disabled populations who currently don't have reliable transportation to their errands and appointments.

In 2017, in the 85th Texas Legislative Session, Abbot signed Senate Bill 2205 into law. The legislation identifies key requirements for CAVs, such as insurance and adhering to traffic laws, like normal vehicles, as well as requiring video recording devices in the car, the Texas Tribune reported. However, it's worth nothing that self-driving vehicles were already being experimented with in Austin by the likes of Google, the Tribune notes.

"Our goal is to further build on the momentum already established with the Texas Technology Task Force and the Texas Innovation Alliance, and work with interested parties on the latest and greatest in CAV projects and enhancements," says TxDOT Executive Director James Bass. "We look forward to furthering these important efforts as connected and autonomous vehicles become reality."

TxDOT is also focusing on rail planning, as the Houston-Dallas high-speed rail chugs along. Earlier this month, the state asked for Texans' feedback on the projects.

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2 COVID-19-focused research projects happening in Houston

research roundup

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

Elon Musk taps into Texas workforce for out-of-this-world bartender gig

DRINKING ON THE JOB

Can you mix a mean margarita? Are you capable of slinging a superb Aperol spritz? If so, Elon Musk wants you to become a "spaceport mixologist."

Musk's SpaceX, which builds and launches rockets, is hiring a "passionate, experienced" mixologist for its "spaceport" near Brownsville. The ideal candidate possesses at least two years of "superior" mixology experience at resorts, bars, and full-service restaurants, including the ability to pair drinks with themed menus.

Among other duties, the mixologist will prepare drinks, including handcrafted cocktails, and will ensure "consistency and compliance with the restaurant's recipes, portioning, and waste control guidelines."

The new mixologist will concoct alcoholic beverages for SpaceX's launch facility in Boca Chica, a Texas Gulf Coast community about 20 miles east of Brownsville. The job posting indicates the mixologist will work on the culinary team serving the SpaceX workforce.

According to Austin-based job website Indeed, the average mixologist in the U.S. earns $13.53 an hour. The SpaceX job posting doesn't list a salary, but you've got to imagine Musk — by far the richest person in Texas — would fork over more than $13.53 an hour for a spaceport mixologist.

By the way, in case you're not a master mixologist, SpaceX also is looking for a sous chef in Boca Chica. The sous chef will be tasked with cooking up menus that emphasize seasonal items and "creative" options. The chef's duties will include sourcing high-quality ingredients "with a focus on local, sustainable, and organic items."

Musk, who spends much of his time in Austin, is developing what the Bloomberg news service describes as an "empire" in Texas. Aside from the SpaceX facility, Musk-led Tesla is building a vehicle manufacturing plant just east of Austin and is moving its headquarters here. If that weren't enough, the Musk-founded Boring Co., which specializes in developing underground tunnels, lists 20 job openings in Austin on its website. In addition, SpaceX tests rocket engines at a site in McGregor, about 17 miles southwest of Waco.

"Texas has had its share of characters over the years, and many have been larger-than-life, wealthy risk-takers who came from elsewhere," Waco economist Ray Perryman tells Bloomberg. "There's still a wildcatting mentality here, and there's still a mystique about Texas that Elon Musk fits well."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.