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How Nissan, Rolls-Royce, and Virgin Hyperloop hope to revolutionize travel

June 9, 2021, 11:27 PM UTC

As the pandemic eases and people start traveling again, the leaders of Nissan, Rolls-Royce, and Virgin Hyperloop want to change transportation forever.

Although each company is taking a different approach, they share some common ground: using electricity as a more efficient and environmentally friendly source of power, for everything from blazing-fast aircraft to the family sedan.

Consider Virgin Hyperloop, which is developing a cutting-edge transportation system that would function like a futuristic subway. CEO Josh Giegel said his hyperloop, which would shoot people seated in pods through tubes at speeds as fast as “an aircraft,” would be powered by batteries.

A trip that now lasts hours could be reduced “to just a few minutes,” Giegel said at this year’s Fortune’s Global Forum conference.

“We’re looking at a future that is high-speed, it’s on demand, and it goes directly to your destination, not stopping every place along the way,” Giegel said.

Giegel explained that a combination of smaller batteries, more efficient and cheaper electrical components, and better magnets have helped make the idea of a hyperloop more than just a dream. 

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce chief executive Warren East discussed his company’s plans to make aviation history by breaking the world’s record for fastest electric airplane. Rolls-Royce is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of jet engines, powering 35 commercial aircraft types including the Boeing 777 and 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A330, A340 and A350.

Industrial giant Siemens currently holds the world record for the fastest electric airplane flight—210 mph, achieved in 2017.

“We’re hoping to make a significant improvement on that, and by significant I don’t just mean 10%, I mean absolutely smashing the record,” East said. 

The challenge of breaking the speed record helps Rolls-Royce push its engineering capabilities so that it can one day produce enough electric-hybrid engines for commercial flights, he explained. It would be a big switch for Rolls-Royce, which has built its business on engines that use jet fuel. 

He speculated that electricity would help power future small aircraft on short flights as opposed to jumbo jets traveling thousands of miles. Hybrid engines that use both electricity and so-called synthetic fuel—a more environmentally friendly substitute for jet fossil fuel—would likely power the bigger aircraft of the future, East said.

East also speculated that future helicopters may one day be electric, which could lead to more people using them. These electric helicopters may be “lighter, safer, and fundamentally more economic” than conventional helicopters. 

Finally, Nissan Motor CEO Makoto Uchida explained his auto giant plans to sell more electric vehicles to meet the needs of the “younger generation who would like to contribute to the environment.”

It will take some time, however. Customers won’t suddenly change their preference for “full-size pickups” to electric vehicles overnight, Uchida noted. Additionally, Nissan needs to improve current battery technology to lower the overall cost of mass-producing electric vehicles, he explained.

Correction, June 10, 2021: This post has been updated to remove the reference to Rolls-Royce’s luxury car business, a unit the company sold in the 1990s.