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Musk’s hyperloop still captivates despite decade of setbacks

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A model of a passenger hyperloop capsule at Dubai's 2020 Expo. The UAE firm DP World is one of the firms trying to develop a hyperloop
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A decade ago, Elon Musk proposed a new form of transport that would shoot passengers through vacuum tunnels in levitating pods at almost the speed of sound — he called it “hyperloop”. 

Since then, cities from Abu Dhabi to Zurich have been touted as destinations, research projects have gobbled up millions of dollars and a host of commercial ventures have sprung up — even Richard Branson got involved.

“The transportation network has not had a new mode for over 100 years,” said Rick Geddes, a transport infrastructure expert at Cornell University in the United States, who compared the excitement to the early days of aviation.

But nobody has come close to making the hyperloop work.

The difficulties have ranged from costs and finding suitable locations, to simply persuading people that travelling through a narrow tunnel at speeds faster than a jet plane is a good idea.

Musk’s initial proposal would have been a “barf ride”, transport blogger Alon Levy wrote at the time.

Despite all the problems, though, the hyperloop idea still energises university campuses, corporate board rooms and city halls across the world.

Hidde de Bos, a 22-year-old engineering student, first heard of it four years ago.

His university at Delft in the Netherlands excelled in competitions run by Musk’s SpaceX firm, which invited students to develop pods to fire through vacuum tunnels.

– Musk returns –

“It made me really excited to see what the possibilities were,” he told AFP.

He is now chief engineer of Delft Hyperloop, a non-profit university spin-off.

De Bos said the SpaceX competitions, which were discontinued in 2019, were too focused on speed and became like “drag races in a tunnel”.

Now, his team is taking part in a student-led competition, European Hyperloop Week, which he hopes will refocus on sustainable energy and developing levitation systems.

And Musk himself recently gave a jolt to the hyperloop fraternity by tweeting that his tunnelling firm The Boring Company would “attempt to build a working Hyperloop” in the coming years.

Musk first mentioned the idea in a 2012 media interview before publishing a white paper about it a year later.

But his direct involvement has been sporadic, and he has always encouraged others to develop the idea.

Los Angeles-based firm Hyperloop TT, among the first and most enthusiastic firms to run with Musk’s idea, welcomed his return.

Rob Miller, the firm’s chief marketing officer, told AFP it was “further validation” for the concept.

– ‘More cautious’ –

But he stressed that hyperloop was now much bigger than just one man.

Bearing out his point, new proposals have emerged in recent months from local authorities ranging from Italy to India.

However, proposals are one thing, and revolutionising public transport is quite another.

In its early years, Hyperloop TT signed exploratory deals in India, China and beyond.

In 2019, the firm promised a 10-kilometre (six-mile) track would open in the UAE the following year.

None of these projects has come to fruition.

“We’re a little more cautious now about those types of announcements,” said Miller. 

Virgin Hyperloop, a firm briefly helmed by Richard Branson but majority-owned by DP World, which runs Dubai’s ports, has also had to scale back its promises.

– Prestige vs price –

It was the first company to fire humans along a hyperloop test track back in 2020. 

Branson had mooted a 45-minute journey between London and Scotland.

But Virgin Hyperloop recently abandoned the idea of carrying passengers altogether, shed half its staff and is now focused on a potential freight line in UAE.

Musk has also promised various hyperloop projects that failed to materialise.

Virgin Hyperloop and The Boring Company did not respond to AFP requests for comment. 

Critic Alon Levy says the hyperloop is caught between unrealistic prestige projects across short distances and longer routes that cost too much.

The Abu Dhabi-Dubai route promised by Hyperloop TT is just 130 kilometres, “not even a distance for high-speed rail”, he said.

But potential routes like New York to Miami or Chicago would need around $50 billion just to get started, Levy reckons.

– ‘Bring it to life’ –

“You don’t get that from private investors,” he told AFP.

Levy does see one ray of light — newer designs featuring longer bends seem to have resolved the “barf” problem.

And enthusiasts still radiate positivity.

“We’ll keep doing what we’re doing and we’ll bring it to life,” said Miller.

But he conceded his firm had been “overly optimistic about timelines”.

He now predicts the first city-to-city track within five years but won’t divulge the location.

Geddes is also optimistic about the future, though he also reflected that past promises weighed heavy.

“We used to say five to 10 years,” he said. “That was five years ago. Maybe it’s five to 10 years now.”

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Elon Musk sells nearly $7 billion worth of Tesla shares

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Elon Musk has sold nearly $7 billion worth of Tesla shares, according to legal filings, amid a high-stakes legal battle with Twitter over a $44 billion buyout deal.

The Tesla boss sold some 7.9 million shares between August 5 and 9, according to filings published on the Securities and Exchange Commission’s website on Tuesday.

“In the (hopefully unlikely) event that Twitter forces this deal to close and some equity partners don’t come through, it is important to avoid an emergency sale of Tesla stock,” Musk, the world’s richest man, wrote on Twitter late Tuesday.

Twitter is locked in a legal battle with the mercurial Tesla boss over his effort to walk away from the April agreement to buy the company, and a judge has ordered that a trial will begin in October.

Musk has filed a countersuit, accusing Twitter of fraud and alleging the social media platform misled him about key aspects of its business before he agreed to a $44 billion buyout.

The move comes after Musk sold around $8.5 billion worth of shares in the electric carmaker in April as he was preparing to finance the Twitter deal. He tweeted at the time: “No further TSLA sales planned after today.”

Tesla rose 3.4 percent to $879 before the start of regular trading Wednesday, while Twitter jumped 4.3 percent to $44.69, Bloomberg reported.

Musk has now sold about $32 billion worth of Tesla shares since November.

“He is cashing up for Twitter,” Charu Chanana, a strategist at Saxo Capital Markets told Bloomberg News. 

Chanana said she believed Musk may be attempting to take advantage of a Tesla share price rebound of about 35 percent since late May.

“The bear market rally has started to falter, and further repricing of Fed expectations could mean more pain for equities ahead, especially in tech.”

Analysts say Musk may continue selling Tesla stock.

“Musk said at the Tesla shareholder meeting that any weakness in the share price was a buying opportunity, and then 24 hours later started selling stock himself,” Jim Dixon, a senior equity sales trader at Mirabaud Securities, told Bloomberg News. 

Dixon added that it was “very unlikely” that Musk was finished selling Tesla stock.

Tesla share prices have been tied to the fate of Musk’s Twitter deal in recent weeks, first slumping over concerns that pursuing the deal could distract him and lead to unnecessary financial risk, and then rebounding when he said he wanted to abandon the takeover.

Musk’s deal to buy Twitter included a provision that if it fell apart, the party breaking the agreement would pay a termination fee of $1 billion under certain circumstances.

At a net worth of $250 billion, Musk tops the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, although he has lost $20.1 billion since the start of the year, mainly due to the decline in Tesla’s stock price.

— Bloomberg News contributed to this story —

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Deliveroo says losses grow, to exit Netherlands

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Deliveroo has enjoyed strong sales growth in a short space of time but faces questions over its sustainability
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Deliveroo, the international delivery food app, announced Wednesday a big increase in losses as investment costs ate into rising revenues, adding it planned to exit its struggling Netherlands market.

Loss after tax jumped 41 percent to £153.8 million ($186 million) compared with the first six months of last year, the British group said in a statement.

Revenue grew 12 percent to £1 billion despite easing Covid curbs and controversy over treatment of its riders.

Deliveroo said the outlook was clouded by strong inflation and the Ukraine war. 

However, company founder and chief executive Will Shu expressed confidence in the company’s ability “to adapt financially to any further changes in the macroeconomic environment”. 

– Netherlands exit –

Deliveroo said it “proposes to consult on ending its operations in the Netherlands”, noting it did “not hold a strong local position” in the country.

The company added that it “would require a disproportionate level of investment, with uncertain returns, to reach and sustain a top tier market position”.

A planned exit from the Netherlands towards the end of November follows Deliveroo’s departure from Spain last year, although the group on Wednesday said it had gained market share in the UK and Italy.

It added that overall marketing and other investment costs, including spend on technology, jumped 29 percent to almost £369 million in the first half.

Deliveroo has enjoyed strong sales growth in a short space of time but faces questions over its sustainability, highlighted by its failed stock market debut which took place in London last year.

Its initial public offering was the capital’s biggest stock market launch for a decade, valuing the group at £7.6 billion.

But its share price tumbled on launch day by almost a third from the IPO price of £3.90 as investors questioned Deliveroo’s treatment of its self-employed riders.

A French court of appeal last month found Deliveroo guilty of “undeclared work” for classifying a courier as an independent contractor instead of an employee.

In early London trading following Wednesday’s earnings update, Deliveroo’s share price rose 0.8 percent at 92 pence.

“Stay-at-home stocks like Deliveroo fared extremely well during the pandemic when restaurants and bars were shut and households were forced into lockdown,” noted Victoria Scholar, head of investment at Interactive Investor. 

“However, the reopening of the economy combined with stiff competition from the likes of Just Eat and Uber Eats and q-commerce (quick-commerce) players like Gorillas and Go Puff, as well as the cost-of-living crisis, have created an extremely challenging environment.”

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Space invaders: How video gamers are resisting a crypto onslaught

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Blockchain-based play-to-earn games have proved hugely popular in parts of Asia and Latin America
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When video game designer Mark Venturelli was asked to speak at Brazil’s biggest gaming festival, he submitted a generic-sounding title for his presentation — “The Future of Game Design” — but that was not the talk he gave.

Instead, he launched into a 30-minute diatribe against the blockchain technology that underpins cryptocurrencies and the games it has spawned, mostly very basic smartphone apps that lure players with the promise of earning money.

“Everything that is done in this space right now is just bad — actually it’s terrible,” he told AFP.

He is genuinely worried for the industry he loves, particularly because big gaming studios are also sniffing around the technology.

To crypto enthusiasts, blockchain will allow players to grab back some of the money they spend on games and make for higher-stakes enjoyment.

Critics say the opposite is true — game makers will capture more profits while sidestepping laws on gambling and trading, and the profit motive will kill all enjoyment.

The battle lines are drawn for what could be a long confrontation over an industry worth some $300 billion a year, according to Accenture.

– ‘Ecologically mortifying’ –

Gamers like Venturelli might feel that they have triumphed in the early sorties.

Cryptocurrencies have crashed recently and dragged down the in-game tokens that had initially attracted players.

“Nobody is playing blockchain games right now,” Mihai Vicol of Newzoo told AFP, saying between 90 and 95 percent of games had been affected by the crash. 

Ubisoft, one of the world’s biggest gaming firms, last year tried to introduce a marketplace to one of its hit games for trading NFTs, the digital tokens that act as receipts for anything from art to video game avatars. 

But gamers’ forums, many already scattered with anti-crypto sentiment, lit up in opposition.

Even French trade union IT Solidarity got involved, labelling blockchain “useless, costly, ecologically mortifying tech” — a reference to the long-held criticism that blockchain networks are hugely power hungry.

Ubisoft quickly ditched the NFT marketplace in Tom Clancy Ghost Recon Breakpoint.

Last month, Minecraft, a world-building game hugely popular with children and teenagers, announced it would not allow blockchain technology. 

The firm criticised the “speculative pricing and investment mentality” around NFTs and said introducing them would be “inconsistent with the long-term joy and success of our players”.

The wider sector also has a serious image problem after a spectacular theft earlier this year of almost $600 million from Axie Infinity, a blockchain game popular in the Philippines. 

Analyst firm NonFungible last week revealed that the NFT gaming sector crashed in the second quarter of this year with the number of sales plunging 22 percent.

All of this points to a bleak time for crypto enthusiasts, but blockchain entrepreneurs are not giving up. 

– ‘Revolutionise’ gaming –

Sekip Can Gokalp, whose firms Infinite Arcade and Coda help developers introduce blockchain to their games, argues it is still “very early days”.

He told AFP some of the attention-grabbing play-to-earn games had been “misguided” and he was convinced the technology still had the potential to “revolutionise” gaming.

Reports of a culture clash between gamers and crypto fans, he said, were overplayed and his research suggested there was substantial overlap between the two communities.

Gokalp can take heart from recent announcements by gaming giants such as Sega and Roblox, a popular platform mostly used by children, indicating they are still exploring blockchain. 

And Ubisoft, despite abandoning its most high-profile blockchain effort, still has several crypto-related projects on the go. 

Among the many benefits trumpeted by crypto enthusiasts are that the blockchain allows players to take items from one game to another, gives them ownership of those items and stores their progress across platforms. 

Vicol, though, reckons blockchain gaming needs to find other selling points to succeed.

“It could be the future,” he said, “but it’s going to be different to how people envisage it today”. 

Brazilian Venturelli, whose games include the award-winning Relic Hunters, used his talk at the BIG Festival in Sao Paulo to dismiss all the benefits trumpeted by crypto fans as either unworkable, undesirable or already available. 

And he told AFP that play-to-earn games risked real-world damage in Latin America — a particular target for the industry — by enticing young people away from occupations that bring benefits to society.

He said many people he knows, including venture capitalists and the heads of billion-dollar corporations, shared his point of view.

“They came to congratulate me on my talk,” he said. 

But with new blockchain games emerging every day, he accepts that the battle is far from over.

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