Still, visionaries continue to dream thank goodness), and the fantasy of ideal futuristic transportation is very much alive right now as exemplified by a concept called the Hyperloop. The Hyperloop seems like a concept that could revolutionize mass transit, shorten travel times on land, and reduce environmental damage as well in the process.
If we are to make a massive investment in a new transportation system, then the return should be equally massive.
Compared to the alternatives, it should ideally be:
lower in cost to the traveler/commuter,
immune to weather,
resistant to earthquakes and
not disruptive to those along the route.
This is certainly a tall bill to fill. Is there truly a new mode of transport – a fifth mode after planes, trains, cars and boats – that meets these criteria and is practical to implement?
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The general idea of a statewide mass transit system is a good one. It would be great to have an alternative to flying or driving, but obviously only if it is actually better than flying or driving.
One would think that ideas for efficient and cost-effective statewide mass transit and the resulting benefits would have already brought about a new age of utopian technology. Yet in many areas of life, things don’t seem to have changed all that much over the years, especially in the field of transportation.
What is the Hyperloop?
The Hyperloop is a concept proposed by billionaire inventor Elon Musk, CEO the aerospace firm SpaceX. It is a reaction to the California High-speed Rail system currently under development, a bullet train system that Musk feels is lackluster, as it will be one of the most expensive and slow-moving in the world.
The Hyperloop™ Transportation System is an entirely new mode of transport that will revolutionize travel by connecting people and goods safely and efficiently. The basic idea is travel enabled by vacuum tube, similar concept to the old vacuum tubes used by department stores to send slips of paper from one floor and department to another.
The theory is that travelling in a vacuum tube as fast as the speed of sound will be a self-sufficient system that relies on renewable energy, is protected from the elements, and where construction and operation costs will be significantly lower than any other mass transport system, which translate directly into cheaper ticket prices, connecting people and communities, and providing new economic growth and opportunity.
Last year, Hyperloop™ Transportation Technologies signed agreements to work with Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum and a global engineering design firm, Aecom. The two companies will lend their expertise to Hyperloop™ in exchange for stock options in the new company, joining the army of engineers from the likes of Boeing and SpaceX already lending their time to the effort.
How It Works
Musk’s Hyperloop consists of two massive tubes stretching between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Pods carrying passengers would travel through the tubes at speeds topping out over 700 mph.
For propulsion, magnetic accelerators will be planted along the length of the tube, propelling the pods forward. The tubes would house a low pressure environment, surrounding the pod with a cushion of air that permits the pod to move safely at such high speeds, like a puck gliding over an air hockey table.
A one way trip on the Hyperloop is projected to take about 35 minutes (for comparison, traveling the same distance by car takes roughly six hours.)
Why The Need?
Existing conventional means of transportation (road, water, air, and rail) tend to be some mix of expensive, slow, and environmentally harmful. Road travel is particularly problematic, given carbon emissions and the fluctuating price of oil. As the environmental dangers of energy consumption continue to worsen, mass transit will be crucial in the years to come.
Rail travel is relatively energy efficient and offers the most environmentally friendly option, but is too slow and expensive to be massively adopted. For air travel, at distances less than 900 miles, supersonic travel is unfeasible, as most of the journey would be spent ascending and descending (the slowest parts of a flight.)
Given these issues, the Hyperloop aims to make a cost-effective, high speed transportation system for use at moderate distances. As an example of the right type of distance, Musk uses the route from San Francisco to L.A. (a route the high-speed rail system will also cover). The Hyperloop tubes would have solar panels installed on the roof, allowing for a clean and self-powering system.
Money and Obstacles
MRealistically, the most important problem in getting any project off the ground is money. An interesting development is that timing of this Hyperloop development lined up with the beta launch of JumpStartFund, a startup that combines elements of crowdfunding and crowdsourcing to tackle ambitious projects like revolutionary transportation infrastructure. JumpStartFund created Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Inc, which brought together engineers willing to spend their free time working on the design in exchange for stock options.
Fortunately, the Hyperloop would be a cost-saving measure, especially when measured against the corpulent rail project currently underway. Musk’s white paper for the Hyperloop estimates the total cost could be kept under six billion dollars. Meanwhile, phase one of the California high-speed rail project is expected to cost at least $68 billion.
However, even if one can produce the money and an impressive blueprint, there are still issues of public approval, legislation, regulations, and contractors to worry about. The startup plans to start construction on a full-scale, passenger-ready Hyperloop this year. The prototype will run 5 miles through Quay Valley, a planned community rising from nothing along Interstate 5, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The startup also announced that it has 400 “team members” working on the project. They aren’t employees, but women and men with regular gigs at places like NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX, who spend their spare time on Hyperloop in exchange for stock options. It’s easy to see why they want to get involved: It’s the chance to work on a truly revolutionary form of transportation—even if some remain convinced it’s never gonna happen.
The partnerships with Oerlikon and Aecom are a big endorsement, suggesting the prototype may be a real thing, not just an idea without a strong foundation in reality. It shows the project is worthy of time and effort from two publicly traded companies with shareholders to answer to. And these companies know what they’re doing. Oerlikon has been in the vacuum business for more than a century, and has worked on projects like the large hadron collider at CERN.
The Hyperloop Competition
Although Elon Musk postulated the idea, SpaceX is not developing a commercial Hyperloop of its own. Instead, it is holding a competition to encourage students and engineers to develop prototype pods. To facilitate this, SpaceX has built a one mile test track in California. According to the contest guidelines, entrants will first submit their designs and receive feedback from SpaceX engineers.
In June 2016, applicants brought their completed pods and tested them on SpaceX’s Hyperloop test track in what was the most impressive soapbox derby ever. The contest is a way for engineers and companies to get the ball rolling to make the Hyperloop system a reality. Like a world’s fair expo, it’s a place for visions of the future to become a little bit clearer. More than 100 prototype pod designs were submitted, and 22 teams won the chance to test their designs on the SpaceX Hyperloop test track.
A team of grad students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) won Best Overall Design. According to the MIT team, the pod is lightweight and emphasizes speed and safety, including a fail-safe brake system. Whereas many Hyperloop designs use air jets to levitate, the MIT design uses two arrays of neodymium magnets to keep the pod aloft. Additional magnets inside the pod will keep it stable as it races along the track.
It remains unclear whether commercial Hyperloop systems will ever be widely adopted. As the global population swells and the environment declines, however, better mass transit systems will become essential.
So what do you think? I am willing to ride in a vacuum tube. Are you?