Hyperloop test track

Hyperloops could be as revolutionary as the internet, company claims

Image credit: Hyperloop One

Executive leaders from Hyperloop One – the first company to begin engineering a hyperloop – have argued that, despite what critics say, this futuristic mode of transport would be faster, cheaper and greener than alternatives and has the potential to reshape society.

Stuck in a traffic jam and watching aeroplanes flying overhead, billionaire inventor Elon Musk conceived the hyperloop. This futuristic mode of transport, he thought, would be superior to schemes such as the California high-speed rail system, which is now under construction.

Too busy with his work with Tesla, SpaceX and other ventures to pursue the hyperloop himself, Musk open-sourced the idea in 2013.

The hypothetical hyperloop is a reduced pressure tube for airtight pods to travel through at almost the speed of sound. These pods – which could contain passengers, cargo or cars – would be accelerated with a linear motor, then glide through the near-vacuum, hovering above the tracks with magnetic levitation to further reduce air resistance.

Hyperloop One – which is independent of Musk – became the first company to set engineers to the task of building a hyperloop. The LA-based company has so far raised $160 million for the project and built a test track in the Nevada desert.

Speaking at the World MetroRail Congress in London this week, senior Hyperloop One representatives described their hopes for the technology, which they say could transform not just transport, but society.

Hyperloop One’s aim is to create hyperloop systems for which ordinary cars with a software upgrade can enter the loop in a pod. This would allow passengers to travel enormous distances very quickly and, most significantly, without delays as they switch between modes of transport.

Accompanying software could be added to electric cars to allow them to open hyperloop airlocks and be automatically billed for their journeys.

“Say I want an Uber – it could be autonomous or could have a person in – to come and meet me outside on the pavement,” said Nick Earle, senior vice-president for global operations at Hyperloop One. “The Uber will go inside the hyperloop, it’ll go London to Edinburgh in perhaps 20 minutes, come out of the airlock in Edinburgh and then go the last mile to the restaurant I want to go to.”

“I could book that with a single click on my phone.”

Hyperloop control centre

Hyperloop One

Image credit: Hyperloop One

Earle says that a hyperloop network would be an example of “physical broadband”, and could be as transformative in the physical world as the internet has proved in the digital world.

“The internet is based on packets of information which go direct to the destination. So the analogy is that what we’re building is physical broadband or physical internet where the packet could be people, or they can be freight, or a vehicle.”

In this analogy, individual vehicles such as driverless cars form the local area network (LAN) while the hyperloops form the wide area network (WAN). Ideally, Earle says, different companies would manufacture their own pods and loops, which would form compatible components of a network.

Rather than simply connecting a few linear points, as with High Speed 2 – the proposed high-speed railway linking London with the West Midlands – there would be a network of loops composed of major “spines” connecting cities, with branches off to factories, airports and local sites of interest. Traditional transport infrastructure, such as roads, would be connected to the hyperloop network.

Dr Alan James, vice-president for worldwide business development at the company, describes hyperloop as having the “capacity of a train, speed of a plane, convenience of a metro, all in one infrastructure.”

The London Underground, the Hyperloop One spokesmen say, shaped the area by incorporating what were originally surrounding towns into London. They suggest that hyperloops could have the potential to do the same on a wider scale.

Speaking to E&T, Dr James said: “What if the UK had a transport system that was 30 minutes from anywhere to anywhere?” A person could live in Manchester, work in London and go home for lunch, making the country far more connected than it is now. This could shift the UK transport sector away from the ‘hub and spokes’ system based around London.

“If you want a three-runway airport, you don’t have to knock down half of London to build it at Heathrow. The third runway for Heathrow could well be Birmingham International.”

Unsurprisingly, such ambitions plans have been attracting criticism since Musk first published his White Paper in 2013. Near sonic-speed transport may be the most headline-grabbing aspect of the proposed system, but it has the potential to cause serious trouble. If two pods collapsed, the passengers would stand no chance of survival. Other critics have commented that the experience of being in a windowless pod moving at hundreds of miles per hour would be an unpleasant experience.

However, the major criticisms levelled at the concept have centred on the cost and complexity of building such a network from scratch. Elon Musk’s original $6 billion estimate for a US hyperloop project has been questioned, with critics saying that costs are likely to accumulate far beyond that due to the expenses of land acquisition, tunnelling and the technical challenge of building and maintaining the huge, delicate network.

Musk’s White Paper – which suggests a $20 fare to take a hyperloop journey between San Francisco and LA – was criticised by Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, for being unrealistic. Hyperloop One hopes to charge passengers approximately the same as air fares – and less than rail fares – to use the hyperloop.

They hope to achieve this by keeping operating costs low. Pods in the near-vacuum could require a boost only every 30-40km and the efficiency of the system could be maximised by having pods travelling just seconds apart, rather than minutes apart as trains do.

The Hyperloop One spokesmen admit that designing, approving, constructing and maintaining a hyperloop will be far from cheap, but argue that over its lifetime it would be cheaper than other major transport infrastructure projects under discussion, such as HS2 or Maglev.

Hyperloop station

Hyperloop One

Image credit: Hyperloop One

Hyperloop One is not ready to begin building full-scale hyperloops and are still in the process of demonstrating that the technology works, using their prototype hyperloop in Nevada. Soon, the company will be making regulatory cases for their project in selected countries.

Given that the hyperloop is not a plane, train, road or similar to anything else familiar to regulators, it is likely that new regulatory standards would need to be written to ensure that a hyperloop would be a safe and useful mode of transport. Hyperloop One is currently working with partners in the Middle East to discuss a potential hyperloop between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as well as in Northern Europe for a hyperloop between Helsinki and Stockholm.

The company is particularly optimistic about talks that have been ongoing with regulators in the Middle East, who are keen to complete the regulatory process within 18 months, in order to get freight travelling through hyperloops by 2020, followed by passengers by 2021.

For a comparatively small company – with fewer than 300 employees – Hyperloop One has enormous ambitions and only time will tell whether these plans will become reality.

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