Musk's Hyperloop: Masterstroke or Fantasy?
Posted 26/11/2019 by Pedro A. Sousa
Planes, trains, automobiles, and boats – the four conventional pillars of travel. But what if there were a fifth? In 2013, Elon Musk revealed his vision for exactly that: an altogether new mode of transportation. Something he called, the “Hyperloop”.
In (very) simple terms, the idea involved firing people several hundred kilometres at supersonic speeds in vacuum tubes. This seemed like pure science-fiction at the time. The trouble is… Musk has previous with such ambitious endeavours.
True to form, just six years on, dreams of a Hyperloop are becoming a reality. In fact, work is already well underway. The project has been open-sourced, meaning there are spectrum of companies, start-ups, and research groups all working to hone the technology into something viable. And heads are starting to turn.
What is the Hyperloop?
The principle is simple: a cylindrical capsule with capacity for around 30 to 50 passengers at a time. Passengers travel through a sealed rigid tube, measuring approximately 3m in diameter. By depressurising the tube, the system removes the single greatest obstacle to high-speed transportation – friction.
Different developers are taking different approaches to the detail. But the general concept sees capsules propelled using linear electric motors. The track itself requires no electrification. As is so often the case in engineering, the Hyperloop is at once wonderfully simple and impossibly complex.
But now to ask the obvious question: why?
Faster, cheaper, greener
The foremost advantage of the Hyperloop is speed. Just how quick are we talking? Well, pretty quick. Capsules are projected to reach speeds close to 670mph (1080km/h). For context, we turn to a recent study published by TRL (the Future of Transport, UK), comparing potential travel times across two popular routes.
The conclusion is clear: the Hyperloop is faster than traditional modes of transportation, and it’s not even close.
It’s also worth taking a look at comparative daily capacity. Here, the Hyperloop outstrips air travel by some distance. Differences are shown to be minimal when compared to high-speed rail travel. While the capacity per vehicle is lesser, the Hyperloop is able to outperform other forms of transport by virtue of its longer operating hours.
From a financial perspective, accurate bottom-up estimates aren’t yet available. But some developers are claiming that implementation cost could be half that of a high-speed rail line. Operational costs are also estimated to be considerably lower.
There’s an added environmental boon, too. Hyperloop technology offers impressive efficiency. Estimates sit at around one quarter the energy cost of high-speed rail, and less still than air travel. Add to that a complete lack of carbon emissions, and an almost total lack of noise pollution.
Reality check: challenges and criticism
Musk is never far from criticism. And with the Hyperloop, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
First, there are question marks over the project’s ambition. Both Space X and Virgin Hyperloop One have completed their first set of full scale tests on short-trial tracks. Despite general success, the prototypes have yet to exceed 280mph – some way off the stated target of 670mph.
Next up is safety. The first “human-loaded” capsules are planned for 2020, meaning the design is still in relative infancy. As a result, any claims to safety remain very much in the realms of the theoretical and hypothetical.
Critics have also raised concerns about user experience. Fast journey times may sound appealing, but how about travelling in a narrow, windowless capsule? How about high internal noise volumes, as air is compressed and ducted around the capsule at near-sonic speeds, all the while with major vibration and jostling? Some may think twice about that.
But it’s the current lack of government regulation and buy-in that could well be the project’s biggest stumbling block yet. It’s estimated that only 60% of features can be regulated under existing aerospace, aeronautical, and train legislation. But there is movement on this front.
The US House of Representatives passed a bill last June hinting at regulation pertaining to safety and environmental protocols for Hyperloop projects. Several states are undertaking Environmental Impact Statements with a view to preparing procurement.
The Government of India has given the nod to procurement for a Hyperloop between Mumbai and Pune. In the EU and Abu Dhabi, the creation of guidelines and standards are also well underway.
A conclusion of positivity
Commercial operation may yet be a while away. Time is needed for further testing, regulation, safety, funding. And there remain a number of hurdles in the Hyperloop journey. But it’s early days yet.
Ultimately there’s no denying that the Hyperloop is already sending shock waves throughout the world of infrastructure. It’s bold, it’s ambitious, and it’s one of the most promising cost-benefit propositions seen in years. Yes, things look positive.
While some estimate the first commercial trips to be as far away as 2040, the fast pace of development is exciting. Forthcoming procurement in India and the US is evidence that, with greater public and private engagement, it’s entirely possible that a faster timeline should emerge – leading to a breadth of exciting opportunities in the finance community.