Imagine traveling the length of the United Kingdom—from London to Edinburgh, 400-plus miles—in under an hour. A journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco would take less than 30 minutes (five hours less than the average drive between the two cities). Your journey would be safe and comfortable, your carbon footprint almost non-existent.
Passengers and cargo would be loaded into a pod, which accelerates gradually via electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube. The pod quickly lifts above the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds for long distances due to ultra-low aerodynamic drag.
You could board directly from your office in London, shoot down a tunnel to join the main network, and after around 50 minutes traveling at speeds of anything between 600 and 1200 kilometres per hour (roughly 370-745mph) in a vacuum tube, arrive at your meeting in Edinburgh before heading back in the afternoon.
Such is the promise of perhaps today’s most buzzed about transportation innovation: the Hyperloop.
Today, of course, this all sounds rather far-fetched, especially to someone used to spending over an hour on the 60-mile commute from London to Cambridge. So what is it exactly about this technology that has some of the world’s most influential businessmen and innovators—from Sir Richard Branson (whose Virgin Group recently acquired LA-based Hyperloop One) and SpaceX/Tesla visionary Elon Musk (who pushed the idea to begin with)—championing it? To borrow from Musk’s other high-profile initiatives, is Hyperloop destined to be another Tesla or will it be more like Mars colonization (something that, if not exactly impossible, is also not happening any time soon)? Could this fail entirely?
Getting a sense for whether it’s genuinely time to begin taking the Hyperloop seriously in 2018 requires talking to the people living and breathing the development. Luckily, there are quite a few people along for that ride these days.
In a vacuum, can science overcome stop signs?
Current Hyperloop hype all started in August 2013 when Musk first challenged startups and students to develop the concept, which he described as something like a cross between Concorde, a railgun, and an air hockey table.
Despite some positive praise since, there are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical. To start, a real-world Hyperloop system would require a large network of vacuum tubes. As sharp turns are impossible, it will be difficult to obtain the space, especially above the ground in densely populated areas. That means the network is most likely to be built underground, and the high cost of tunnelling must also be factored in. It’s not hard to imagine a civic works project that escalates into the billions.
Yet in the face of this widely-acknowledged difficulty, the Hyperloop project has captured public interest partially because it simultaneously provides (at least in theory) a solution to the very real problem of making travel sustainable, at scale. The global population is expected to top 11 billion by the end of this century, and much of this growth will be concentrated in cities—an estimated 2.5 billion people will be added to urban population numbers by 2050 according to a United Nations Report. Yet our roads, ports, and airports are already at capacity, and expanding existing infrastructure is its own incredibly difficult, slow, and expensive (if not downright impossible) process.
Grappling with this potential, skepticism, and doubt is something that Hyperloop One’s Chief Engineer Josh Giegel has become accustomed to.
“I sat in meetings where investors would say, ‘This is a waste of time, this will never happen’” he recently told Fortune magazine. Yet the LA-based company, which in October was officially rebranded Virgin Hyperloop One, recently managed to not only raise $85 million in funding, but to get Branson to join its board of directors. Admittedly, Giegel is a former Virgin Galactic employee and his partner Shervin Pishevar signed up for that company’s Future Astronauts program in 2012, but it is still a resounding endorsement to hear Branson talk of being “completely blown away,” when he visited their test facility in the Las Vegas desert.
Confidence from folks like Giegel largely stems from just how much work has been done given the relatively short lifetime of the modern Hyperloop industry. While things like the Usborne Book of the Future may have introduced many to the idea of maglev capsule trains running in vacuum tunnels, Musk essentially kickstarted the current crop of businesses as we now know it. That’s because when reintroducing the idea to the masses, Musk argued that he didn’t have the time to pursue it himself given his existing commitments to Tesla and SpaceX. Instead, he encouraged all interested engineers to publish open-source designs and invite critical feedback from other willing parties, essentially allowing the overall scientific and engineering communities to explore the technology and improve it collectively.
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