Many people have called the Hyperloop system the technology of tomorrow, and thanks to a recent spate of investments, it may be closer to reality than ever before.
It’s easy to see a new technology touted and assume that it will have a huge impact on the world. You probably read about it all the time. A new way to generate power is conceived, or a new way to travel to the stars is theorized, and it sounds amazing. But there’s a big difference between theory and practical application. You can never be sure what technology is going to make that jump and what isn’t, but there are a few signs that help show how far along a project or concept is.
One of the best indicators that a new technology is about to make the jump from fiction to society-changer is when several companies all see one group leading the way, and decide to get in on things. It’s sort of like a new business model hits critical mass, and once a few major players are involved, a small snowball forms and begins rolling downhill.
That seems to be the case with Hyperloop, the sealed, high-speed train system that has an estimated top speed of 760 mph. At that speed, a Hyperloop train could travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a distance of 350 miles, in just 35 minutes. It would also be cheap (after construction costs), produce little to no waste, and be faster than almost all alternatives. It would/will change the way we live for the better. And it recently took a few big steps closer to reality.
The Transportation of Tomorrow, Born Yesterday
The idea behind a Hyperloop train has been around for years, even decades. Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry who died in 1945, had an idea for a high-speed train he dubbed the “vactrain.” The concept is similar to the pneumatic tubes that used to be common in large buildings in the late 19th and early 20th century used to deliver messages. The concept was sound, but the technology simply didn’t exist to see his idea become reality.
In 2012, Elon Musk publically mentioned his desire to encourage the development of a new type of transport that was heavily inspired by Goddard’s theories. Musk proposed the creation of a pressurized tube, which would allow a pod traveling on air bearings, driven by linear induction motors and air compressors, to race through at high speeds. To further develop this idea he tasked engineers from his companies Tesla and SpaceX to design a proof of concept that others could use. That led to the release of the Hyperloop Alphas papers the following year.
In the Hyperloop Alphas proposal, the focus was on building a tube that followed I-5, the main highway that runs up and down the West Coast. The Hyperloop would connect the Bay Area to Los Angeles. It was an intriguing idea, but the $7.5 billion price tag turned some people off. Musk was deeply involved, but he never planned to head up a company working on a hyperloop. Instead, he made all the information he had collected open source, hoping that others that specialize in this type of work would step in.
It didn’t happen immediately, but several companies around the world began to look into the project’s viability. Musk continued to push the concept, and eventually, people stopped thinking of hyperloop as an interesting idea and instead started to wonder how it could be done. And now, thanks to the recent involvement from several new organizations looking to get into the Hyperloop business, momentum seems to have firmly shifted in favor of making the transport system a reality.
While Musk has been making headlines for reinventing solar panels and planning trips to Mars, others have been finding ways to make Hyperloop a reality. There are still concerns – and not just in the technology itself, but in its vulnerability to outside forces like severe weather and even terrorist attacks – but that isn’t stopping some from going all in on the concept.
Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin brand, recently invested in the company Hyperloop One, one of three U.S. companies looking to create a hyperloop system stateside. As a result, the company changed its name to Virgin Hyperloop One. It is currently looking at building a Hyperloop system in the U.S., as well as creating at least nine loops throughout Europe.
The German group Munich Re recently conducted a study of the technology and found it to be viable – and insurable, something that many have been concerned about. Following the study, Munich Re decided to get involved and has since partnered with Virgin Hyperloop One competitor, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), giving it a boost on the international stage.
Along with its plans for America, HTT is currently working with the government of India to create a Hyperloop system connecting the urban centers of Vijayawada and Amaravati. The cities are just 27 miles apart, but if Hyperloop can prove to be a viable option, it will certainly expand throughout the country from there.
And while the U.S., Europe, and India are looking to speed up travel, China is looking to adapt the technology to make it outrageously fast.
The Chinese government is teaming up with local companies to develop a Hyperloop system that would be significantly faster than any of its competitors. The plan is to create three types of Hyperloop systems: one would be for passengers to travel over relatively short distances within a city at around 620 mph (putting it on par with the other systems); the second would be for longer journeys between distant urban areas, and would reach speeds of 1,240 mph; the third would be for long-distance cargo and passenger routes, and could see top speeds of 2,500 mph, roughly 3.2 times the speed of sound.
The Next Step in Travel
Imagine going from New York to LA in 3-4 hours, or London to Edinburgh in 15 minutes. You could live in Vancouver, BC and commute to work in Portland, Oregon every day. Weekends you could travel from your home in Phoenix to the Pacific Ocean in less than an hour. It might seem like fantasy, but it could be a reality within the next few years.
Once the initial construction costs were handled (easier said than done), Hyperloop would be the cheapest and fastest way to travel from one point to the other. Musk, who has settled into a role as godfather and advisor to the movement, has suggested building solar panels either on, or next to the tube to help provide power, and some have suggested adding in other forms of clean energy into the mix making it non-polluting.
Hyperloop technology is on the verge of going from wild idea to way of life. It still faces several hurdles, and there are many discussions still to be had. For instance, much of the I-5 corridor cuts through rural areas, but what about the areas where it will need to build and there are existing houses? There has been talk of elevating the tube above the highway using pylons, but that presents its own set of challenges, including the costs. There’s also the question of what materials will be used, how big to make the pods, who will land the contracts to construct it… the list goes on.
Still, if you’ve ever wanted to just hop on a train and be in another city in a matter of minutes, Hyperloop may be for you.