We live in an age of unbelievable progress in the field of computing, with the internet having revolutionized the way information is exchanged on a global scale. It seems like every day the chips get smaller and the storage space gets larger. One would think such changes would have 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, and transportation is a woeful example of this. The roads are still lined with cars, the skies speckled with airliners. The science fiction stories of decades past foresaw flying cars and teleporters, but the 21st century has had to settle for Segways.
Dreams never die, however, and the fantasy of futuristic transportation is very much alive right now as exemplified by a concept called the Hyperloop. While it’s not quite as mind-shattering as a teleporter or as fun as a personal jetpack, the Hyperloop seems like it could revolutionize mass transit, shortening travel times on land and reducing environmental damage in the process.
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.
A one way trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles on the Hyperloop is projected to take about 35 minutes.
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. Imagine the pneumatic tubes people in the Jetsons use to move around buildings, but on a much bigger scale. 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.
Given the tight quarters in the tube, pressure buildup in front of the pod could be a problem. The tube needs a system to keep air from building up in this way. Musk’s design recommends an air compressor on the front of the pod that will move air from the front to the tail, keeping it aloft and preventing pressure building up due to air displacement. 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?
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. 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.
There are of course drawbacks. Most notably, moving through a tube at such high speeds precludes large turns or changes in elevation. As a result, the system is optimal for straightforward trips across relatively level terrain.
California is, of course, susceptible to earthquakes, and the Hyperloop design takes this into account. The tubes would be mounted on a series of pylons spread along the route, each pylon placed every 100 feet or so. The pylons will allow for slip due to thermal expansion and earthquakes, ensuring that the tubes will not be broken by any such movement.
Realistically, the most important problem in getting any project off the ground is money, doubly so when talking about a public work. Even if one can produce an impressive blueprint, there are still issues of public approval, legislation, regulations, and contractors to worry about. 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.
The Hyperloop competition and recent developments
Although Elon Musk postulated the idea, SpaceX is not developing a commercial Hyperloop of its own. Instead, it has been holding various competitions to encourage students and engineers to develop prototype pods. To facilitate this, SpaceX has built a one mile test track in California.
The contest was a way for engineers and companies to get the ball rolling to make the Hyperloop system a reality.
On January 30, 2016, the SpaceX Hyperloop design competition concluded. More than 100 prototype pod designs were submitted, and 27 teams have won the chance to test their designs on the SpaceX Hyperloop test track in June 2016. 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 keep it stable as it races along the track. The power of the prototype was impressive, though it’s still very far from a commercial product given it currently lacks space for passengers or even cargo.
In January 2017, the long-running SpaceX Hyperloop competition wrapped up with “Competition Weekend I,” in which completed pods raced on the test track. A team from Delft University in the Netherlands took the top prize.
Although this particular contest is over, the Hyperloop project is far from finished, as companies and governments around the world explore the concept. For its part, SpaceX will be holding another competition in the Summer of 2017, this one focused entirely on attaining the highest maximum speed.
There’s no guarantee that anything concrete will come out of the competition, though. The contest is a way for engineers and companies to exchange knowledge and maybe get the ball rolling to make the Hyperloop system a reality at some point down the line. Like a world’s fair expo, it’s a place for visions of the future to become a little bit clearer.
While SpaceX’s contest was a good showcase for engineering students, the Hyperloop concept has also garnered interest from businessmen. Startups such as Hyperloop One (formerly Hyperloop Technologies) and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) are working on Hyperloop systems of their own, and what they lack in clever naming they make up for in ambition. Both companies are building their own test tracks, and HTT has recently announced a partnership with Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum, an engineering firm specializing in vacuum technology, and Aecom, an international corporation providing technical project support. The companies will receive stock options in exchange for their involvement.