Hype and Hope
In a hyperloop system, pods or capsules containing people or cargo zip down tubes placed above or under the ground at speeds of six hundred miles per hour or higher. This is twice as fast as most trains currently in operation in North America.
The American Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai is going to offer a look at a new, lightning-fast method of travelling and transporting goods. Attendees of this world’s fair will be able to check out two futuristic pods and experience a high-tech simulation of ‘hyperloop’ travel.
The pods and simulation technology will be supplied by Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO) of Los Angeles. VHO is not the only firm in the hyperloop sector but is definitely the most prominent. In press literature, VHO describes itself as “the only company in the world that has successfully tested its technology at scale, launching the first new mode of mass transportation in over 100 years.”
A hyperloop system “works by propelling pods using magnetic levitation through a low-pressure, near-vacuum tube. The low pressure minimizes friction and air resistance, greatly reducing the power needed. And because the pods travel in a tube, they’re not subject to shutdowns due to harsh weather,” explains a February 18, 2019 article in the New York Times.
Pods will be built without windows for strength and pressurized internally like an airplane cabin. Virgin claims that travelling in a hyperloop pod will feel “about the same as riding in an elevator or passenger plane.”
Proponents say the hyperloop concept offers a faster, cleaner, quieter, more efficient, and less environmentally harmful means of transportation than the existing options.
Toronto-based hyperloop company TransPod states that “Current modes of transport – such as cars, trucks, trains and aircraft – are slow, inefficient, congested, fossil-fuel dependent, polluting, and vulnerable to weather conditions.”
The basic concept is not new. Decades ago, department stores, libraries, and newspapers commonly used internal pneumatic tube networks to transport items.
A hyperloop system goes far beyond such relatively small-scale efforts, however, connecting cities and adding human passengers to the mix. The modern hyperloop concept – and the term itself – was explored in an August 2013 white paper by Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX fame. Musk envisioned a tube network built on pylons zipping passenger pods from city to city.
Shortly after the white paper was released, a company called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HyperloopTT) was launched in Los Angeles, becoming the first corporate player dedicated to making hyperloop a reality.
“Hyperloop produces zero emissions,” declares a company press kit. “The HyperloopTT system is powered by a combination of alternative energy sources to ensure sustainability and low-cost. Hyperloop brings airline speeds to ground level, safely.”
HyperloopTT envisions capsules, nine feet in diameter and one hundred feet long that can fit twenty-eight to fifty passengers, travelling down tubes at a top speed of 760 miles per hour. The firm has a research and development centre in Toulouse, France and claims it “unveiled the world’s first full-scale passenger capsule in October 2018.”
For its part, TransPod was founded in 2015 and boasts offices in Italy and France, as well as Toronto. The company is looking to create a hyperloop system for passengers that can hit one thousand kilometres per hour.
Virgin Hyperloop One, founded in June 2014 and backed in part by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, continues to dominate the hyperloop headlines. VHO’s pods move through low-pressure tubes pods via electric propulsion. Pods would actually ‘float’ above tracks, using magnetic levitation.
“Virgin Hyperloop One systems will be built on columns or tunnelled below ground to avoid dangerous grade crossings and wildlife,” states VHO, adding that its system is enclosed, eliminating weather hazards. Virgin says its pods produce “no direct carbon emissions,” so unlike a train, its system is designed to be quiet and clean while generating little more than “a big whoosh” sound in travel mode.
VHO is conducting tests in the desert outside of Las Vegas and recently cut a deal with officials in India to develop a hyperloop line. If all goes to plan, the system will drastically reduce travelling time between the Indian cities of Pune and Mumbai.
Hyperloop technology is promising, but experience shows that certain wild cards might disrupt implementation. Boston’s central artery/tunnel project, also known as ‘the Big Dig,’ offers valuable lessons in this regard and illustrates the impact that politics, safety, and the human factor can have on mega-projects.
The Big Dig saw workers replace a much-despised elevated highway system with a series of new tunnels, bridges, roads, and interchanges to relieve traffic congestion. Since it opened in late 2007, Boston’s new highway system has been a roaring success. However, safety issues nearly derailed the project. During construction, four workers died; a concrete slab fell on a car killing a motorist, and a wall started leaking huge volumes of water.
With this in mind, VHO promises that “safety is our number one priority… We have no at-grade crossings (by far the leading risk posed by trains), so there are no interactions with other forms of transport or wildlife. We are fully autonomous, so there is no driver-related error. We are immune from most weather events… Our tubes are constructed out of thick, strong steel and are very difficult to puncture or buckle.”
In terms of the human factor, the very speed that is central to the hyperloop dream might prove problematic. Accelerate too fast, and passengers could become violently ill. Decelerate too quickly, and passengers might suffer whiplash. To deal with such issues, VHO promises its pods will take three minutes to get up to cruising speed with a top limit of 670 miles per hour and six minutes to make a ninety-degree turn to avoid jostling passengers.
Virgin also says its system has “multiple emergency braking techniques,” and that vehicles “will have a full suite of life support systems and the ability to re-pressurize the tube if needed.”
Politics might pose the biggest challenge of all. The Big Dig required close cooperation between city, state, and federal officials. At one point, Congress got so fed up with the sluggish pace of construction it cut off all federal funding.
“When Popular Mechanics took a comprehensive look at [the hyperloop concept] one year ago, the consensus was that the technology was feasible, but that the political challenges of pulling off such a project in the U.S. would be formidable, to say nothing of the cost. Even the first step, getting the land to build a route between two cities big enough to be worthwhile, is bound to be a serious challenge,” reported Popular Mechanics, in November 30, 2018.
“From the point of view of physics, hyperloop is doable… [However] getting innovative things through the regulatory and certification environments is very difficult. This could face an uphill battle in the U.S,” said Garrett Reisman, professor of astronautical engineering at the University of Southern California and a former astronaut, in the New York Times, February 18, 2019.
“The biggest problems for the hyperloop will be securing rights of way and permitting,” added Rick Geddes, a professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, in the same article.
Some of these political challenges might be resolved by the new Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology Council, launched March 2019 by the Department of Transportation. The council will examine regulatory and permitting issues relating to the development of commercial hyperloop systems in the U.S.
Challenges aside, the hyperloop concept remains tantalizing. Advocates forecast a transportation network more akin to an efficient train station than an airport.
“Airline passengers already suffer while paying high ticket prices. Rather than planning a trip a week in advance, being bumped from flights, experiencing turbulence, storms and flight cancellations, delays, diversions, and lost luggage, TransPod’s system offers a European-style high-frequency train experience, where passengers can simply show up at a station and whenever it’s convenient, buy a ticket, and wait a few minutes for the next TransPod vehicle to depart,” states TransPod.
Hyperloop also represents a green technology. TransPod says its proposed system is completely electric and will be “linked to the regional electrical grid.”
Not only that, “TransPod’s system eliminates fuel waste of an airline ascending to altitude. Most of a jet’s fuel is burned at the start of a flight; hence the high airline ticket prices. TransPod vehicles will run nearly horizontally, thus avoiding this major inefficiency and operating cost of jets,” states the company.
A hyperloop network might also be a boon to anyone shipping goods. “Hyperloop developers expect pods to carry not only people but also high-value, low-weight cargo, offering an alternative to carriers using high-cost air transport, like FedEx and Amazon. In addition, they say, automobile manufacturers and others relying on just-in-time delivery of parts to keep inventory costs down would be able to get parts from distant locations,” reports the New York Times, February 18, 2019.
A final benefit, should a hyperloop system become both operational and widely accepted, could come in the form of a societal transformation. “Not only will [hyperloop] commuters be able to get from place to place faster but doing so will allow people to comfortably live far from their work, giving access to educational, cultural and health services normally out of reach,” writes the New York Times, February 18, 2019.