Hyperloop: The pipe dream becoming reality
In an age where we have experienced unbelievable technological progress, it would appear that transportation has largely remained in the past – attempting to play catch-up now with the likes of drones and self-driving cars.
Despite this, the fantasy of futuristic transportation is very much alive and kicking, largely thanks to the business magnate Elon Musk, who dreamt up the concept of ‘hyperloop’ while sitting in traffic in Los Angeles. Years on, and anticipation around the proposed “fifth mode of transport” has grown leaps and bounds.
What is hyperloop?
It may sound like something out of a 70s sci-fi film, but the principle is actually quite simple. The concept envisions pod-like vehicles suspended inside tubes, using either magnetic levitation or a cushion of pressurised air, and propelled at high speed from A to B.
The environment inside the tubes is similar to that of a vacuum, reducing the friction produced by air resistance. This allows hyperloop pods to travel at far greater speeds and use less energy than conventional trains, potentially hitting speeds of over 700 mph.
Who are the big players?
Busy running both Tesla and SpaceX, Musk decided to release his concept of hyperloop to the public, inviting anyone interested to make it a reality. Despite this, he has since re-entered the race himself as CEO of The Boring Company, an infrastructure and tunnelling firm.
There are then two other main players who claim to be on the verge of making their own breakthroughs – Virgin Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (Hyperloop TT).
The Boring Company has been working on test tunnels for hyperloop in LA and was recently given government consent to begin digging a transportation tunnel in Washington DC, which could eventually facilitate a 29-minute journey between the capital and New York City. The difference is, their systems will likely operate at more moderate speeds of 150 mph for urban trips and 300 mph for longer journeys.
Virgin Hyperloop One currently holds the record in terms of speed achieved with its hyperloop system after reaching 240mph during tests at its track in Nevada last year. It has estimated that a route in the UK connecting London and Edinburgh could take as little as 41 minutes, compared to almost 3 hours by plane and 6 and a half by car.
Hyperloop TT is currently constructing Europe’s first test track near its R&D center in France. The company has signed agreements to develop hyperloop systems that could carry over 160,000 passengers each day in a number of areas including the Czech Republic, India, the Republic of Korea and, most recently, China.
One area in particular that has proved to be an attractive prospect for Virgin Hyperloop One and Hyperloop TT is the 100 km stretch of desert separating Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It’s not much of a surprise – the United Arab Emirates has wealth and flat landscape on its side, with a government that is willing to implement large projects quickly and effectively. Could it soon be home to the world’s first hyperloop system?
Other companies involved in developments include TransPod, ET3 and Arrivo.
What are the benefits?
Given that the UK population is set to exceed 70 million by 2029 and current conventional means of transportation tend to be expensive, slow and damaging to the environment, supporters would argue that Hyperloop could be a major solution.
A hyperloop connecting London, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh could effectively bring half of the population within an hour of each other. Not only would this give people a greater choice of the areas they wish to live and work, but it would also go a long way in unifying property prices across the current north-south divide. We may even see Gatwick and Heathrow connected so that they operate as one “super-hub” airport, according to former Conservative Transport Minister Steve Norris.
In terms of the commercial market, hyperloop has the opportunity to revolutionise supply chains. Virgin Hyperloop One’s Ryan Kelly is confident that Hyperloop will “deliver exceptional service for freight at a cost closer to that of trucking but at a speed closer to that of flight.”
This is reinforced by Midwest Connect, who were one of Virgin’s ten winners in their 2016 Global Challenge to identify projects with the most potential. Thea Walsh, director of transportations and funding, has stated that a corridor connecting Pittsburgh, Columbus and Chicago in the US would “represent an economic game-changer” and “transform the movement of goods and people in the Midwest”.
Are there any doubts?
Hyperloop doesn’t come without its cynics – asking the question, ‘is it practical’?
One key problem in the design of hyperloop is how to maintain low pressure in the tubes over long distances. Though apparently immune to adverse weather or occurrences such as earthquakes, on hot days, engineers believe the tubes could expand by as much as 50 m every 100 km. This could result in air being let in that could alter how the pods operate. Musk’s solution was to incorporate expansion joints, though critics have pointed out that thousands would be required resulting in a huge amount of maintenance.
In the UK; however, the doubts go a step further as supply for a specific type of magnet used in the design could be difficult to source.
Grzegorz Marecki, head of research at HypED, a student society at the University of Edinburgh dedicated to accelerating the development and implementation of hyperloop, believes “we don’t yet have the manufacturing capabilities in the UK to obtain these components on a large scale. It’s similar to the problems that electric vehicle manufacturers have been facing with the supply chain for batteries.”
Aside from the technology itself, hyperloop presents a potential worldwide legislative challenge. The huge step change will mean that few existing regulations will be applicable and would require new framework to be drawn up, though it is expected to be similar to that of the autonomous car industry.
The hyperloop concept will understandably draw scepticism – we’re living at a time where we were promised hoverboards but given Segways, after all! That being said, the idea should not be abandoned. Manufacturers need to move beyond initial test phases and begin long distance trials with freight and passengers. Only then will it become clear as to whether hyperloop travel will become as every-day an activity as going on the bus or train.