Hyperloop - Is it the future of transportation?
Whenever high-speed land transport is mentioned, the famed Japanese 'Shinkansen,' also known as the bullet train, comes to mind. Running since 1964, the mighty rail has continuously challenged its competition. However, in 2013, Elon Musk, one of the greatest inventors of the 21st century, put forth a new technologically advanced mass transport system called the Hyperloop. Hyperloop is envisioned not just to cut down travel times drastically between cities, but also to be cost-effective and more environmentally friendly than other transport systems currently used worldwide.
Hyperloop consists of pneumatic steel tubes that transport pods to carry people from one end of the tube to another – all at supersonic speeds. The exciting part is that the pod practically floats inside the tubes and levitates from the ground by just a few centimeters.
The distance between Los Angeles and Las Vegas is about 380 miles, which takes around five hours and 30 minutes by car, or an hour and 15 minutes by plane. If the same distance is traveled by hyperloop, then the distance can be covered in only 30 minutes.
Hyperloop isn't just about speed; it also aims to be environmentally friendly. "The goal at Virgin Hyperloop One is to run the hyperloop entirely on renewable energy," says Kristen Hammer, materials engineering manager at Virgin Hyperloop One. "We don't want to be chugging smoke into the air or causing pollution," she said. "There's no world where we have to cause pollution. It can be run off all sorts of sustainable energy." Results of a study conducted by Virgin Hyperloop One found that, if implemented, the Hyperloop could result in a 58% reduction in fossil fuel emissions if it replaced every flight ranging in the distance from 310 to 930 miles. In addition to reducing emissions, there would be a decrease in the cost of managing national transport systems, which can bring down government spending.
The Hyperloop is also relatively cost-effective. For example, a high-speed rail network called the "California High-Speed Rail" has been approved at a staggering cost of more than 60 billion USD. The transportation network has been described as one of the "slowest and costliest per mile systems in the world," according to the Hyperloop Alpha white paper presented by Elon Musk in 2013. In comparison, Hyperloop is expected to cost $6 billion.
The Vision Behind the Hyperloop Technology
Although the white paper cited above gave the world a new vision for mass transportation, a "fifth mode of transport," the technology backing this vision is not new. Pneumatic tubes for the parcel, mail, and money transfers found widespread acceptance in the 19th century and are still used at supermarkets, postal sorting stations, and banks today. Hyperloop's concept resembles the pneumatic mail delivery systems: solids can be moved in sealed tubes with little air resistance or friction. It is also interesting to note that in 1904, Robert Goddard improved upon the vactrain concept, which would later serve as a guiding light for the Hyperloop system.
As presented in the Hyperloop Alpha paper, the concept is based on addressing the difficulties faced by high-speed rail technology. The Alpha paper proposes a system where the Pods, or capsules, would float on a set of 28 air-bearing skis or air cushions, just like a puck floats over an air hockey table. An external, linear electric motor would provide the initial push, which would make the pod reach 'supersonic' velocity, and linear accelerators placed along the route would give acceleration when needed.
Emergency systems would be implemented along the track to ensure safety. In the event of failure, the pods would be slowed automatically and slowly proceed to the destination. Earthquakes occur in California, so the tubes would be placed upon quake-resistant pylons, which would only require a land footprint like an electric or telephone pole. As in an airplane, in the event of mass depressurization of the capsule (which is highly unlikely), air masks would drop for each passenger and the tube's air reserves would compensate for the loss of pressure.
The estimated cost to build the system was $6 billion, with a one-way journey cost of $20. Space X and Tesla are not developing these technologies themselves, but are instead encouraging other players to develop the Hyperloop. It has proved fruitful as players like Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) and Virgin Hyperloop One have taken the lead in making this a reality and are introducing new technologies to make the system more efficient.
Key Players in the Hyperloop Market
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) has designed a passive magnetic levitation system to help the pods float. The system has been licensed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). An alternative technology, known as active magnetic levitation, is used by high-speed rail systems worldwide but is extremely expensive. Passive magnetic levitation is a self-stabilizing system that only works when the pod is in motion, and when the pod is at rest it touches the track. "Utilizing a passive levitation system will eliminate the need for power stations along the Hyperloop track, which makes this system the most suitable for the application and will keep construction costs low," Bibop Gresta, COO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, said in a press release. While the picture painted above looks promising, what matters is practical progress. The field is wide open, and the number of competitors has grown consistently. For example, HTT unveiled a full-size pod in 2018 at Puerta de Santa Maria, Spain. HTT has also signed an understanding (MoU) memorandum in 2019 with the Andhra Pradesh government in India to build a system between Vijayvada and Amravati, among 40 other MoUs with governments worldwide.
Virgin Hyperloop One, an American company, has taken the lead with its program by building a full-size pod in 2017that achieved a 387km/hour speed at a test track in Nevada, but Virgin Hyperloop One still has plans for many additional projects. It has signed an MoU with Maharashtra Government to build a hyperloop system between Pune and Mumbai. The program will be expedited as the government has earmarked the project as a mass public transportation project. In the US, as many as 17 states have expressed interest in hosting the Hyperloop certification center. Other possible routes include connecting London with Edinburgh, Los Angeles with San Diego, Miami with Orlando, FL & Reno, NV with Las Vegas, and Chicago with Columbus, OH, and Pittsburgh, PA.
Hardt, a European pioneer in hyperloop technology, is hoping to open a European Hyperloop Centre by the year 2022, although it may be delayed because of COVID-19.
Transpod, a Canadian company, had unveiled plans to connect Toronto with Montreal, Toronto with Windsor, and Edmonton with Calgary. It has also received permission to build a 3-km test track in Droux near Limoges, France, in 2017.
DGWHyperloop, an Indian company, plans to build a corridor between Delhi and Mumbai called the Delhi Mumbai Hyperloop Corridor (DMHC).
And yet more possible entrants are still in the beginning stages, such as the Hyper Poland Project, Zeleros in Spain, and Hyper Chariots based in Santa Monica, US.
The Global Hyperloop Market
Now, the question arises: why do so many support this dream on such a large scale? The answer lies in the vast and unexplored market. Currently valued at $1,870 million in 2020, the industry is expected to grow at a CAGR of 23.25% until 2030. Hyperloop would also help save millions of gallons of fuel that is burned to transport cargo. The Asia-Pacific market would likely lead the Hyperloop technology market, as China is expanding its transportation network rapidly and is already trying to bring down the costs related to freight hauling.
Partnerships are also crucial in the Hyperloop market. For example, Virgin Hyperloop One has joined hands with companies such as AECOM, AMBERG Group, ARCTURAN SUSTAINABLE CARGO, ARUP, Bjarke Ingels Group, Cargo Sous Terrain, Deutsche Bahn Engineering & Consulting, FS LINKS, GRID, KPMG, and SYSTRA. All of these companies are world leaders in their respective fields, and Aemco claims to be the only engineering firm in the world to have constructed a hyperloop. Similarly, HTT, another major player, has partnered with Priestman Goode to design a prototype hyperloop capsule.
"When designing something as completely revolutionary as hyperloop, we consciously did not reference existing forms of transport to ensure that our thinking was clear and unrestrained," said Priestman Goode’s Chairman, Paul Priestman, when talking about the gravity of the invention.
We see that the tube's construction takes up most of the cost (52%) based on the estimation by Hyperloop Alpha white paper, and it seems likely that the Hyperloop companies themselves will be involved in heavy engineering. If we include in consideration the West Coastline, we see an annualized growth of 4.8% in heavy engineering (tube construction in this scenario) at least until 2022.
It is still too early to estimate exactly how the market will evolve. Nevertheless, it appears that competition is fierce, as Hyperloop is arguably the only real breakthrough in surface transportation in over 100 years.
The Opposition to Hyperloop Technology
As with most innovations, there are naysayers. There have been reports regarding the loss of jobs attributed to Hyperloop. As with all technological advancements, while some jobs are likely to be lost, more are likely to be gained.
For example, consider computers. When the personal computer was introduced in the 1970s, about 3.5 million jobs were lost in industries like typewriter manufacturing, secretarial work, and bookkeeping. But on the brighter side, 19.3 million jobs across all verticals were created in the US alone with the computer's introduction.
In conclusion, we can see that Hyperloop may become the future of transportation systems worldwide. If this becomes a reality, even though it is not expected for decades, there will be an immense impact on ordinary people's lives. With the Hyperloop system, it might finally be possible to work in San Francisco but live in Nevada. Apart from the convenience and the green impact, we can also hope for economic success. Suppose we draw inspiration from how early Americans profited economically from introducing railroads and the businesses set up alongside them, in that case, there are even more possible benefits of the Hyperloop system.
However, despite the immense promise, new technologies take time, and will be a while until we can travel in a pod inside a sealed tube with a sound only as loud as a gentle 'SWOOSH.'
For interested readers, Lumenci had previously published a blog on Collegiate Hyperloop: Technology Transfer.