If there’s a sci-fi movie playing out in real life somewhere, expect Elon Musk to be at the center of it.
The South African entrepreneur/futurist first introduced the hyperloop concept in a 2013 white paper, detailing a vacuum tube in which levitating capsules would shuttle passengers at 760 miles an hour from San Francisco to Los Angeles in just 35 minutes. Remember going to the bank and watching checks get sucked up through pneumatic tube? Imagine being inside of it.
Musk has since open-sourced his seedling to inventors everywhere, but the process of bringing the concept into reality faces a number of potential derailments (though based on recent news, Moscow seems ready to roll with it).
Here’s what life will be like in the fast lane … er, loop.
Who can actually build this?
From Musk’s initiative came Hyperloop Technologies, now Hyperloop One, and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT). He’s not paying them directly, but will finance tests.
Hyperloop One has a lineup of platinum venture capitalists and Washington insiders, led by Shervin Pishevar of Sherpa Ventures, that nurtured Uber and Brogan Bambrogen, formerly one of SpaceX’s engineers. But they’re focused on freight transportation for now, envisioning more of a high-speed subterranean cargoloop that will traverse land and/or underwater. Westbound commerce destined for Los Angeles is currently transported by rail and road through Las Vegas, which offers an opportune test route. Think of, eventually, a lattice of underground steel tubes wafting goods between countries at the press of a button.
Then there’s Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT). With its JumpStartFund, HTT is essentially a crowdsourced cache of engineers, designers and other professional moonlighters that hold day jobs at Cisco, Boeing and Harvard who are getting equity as reimbursement. Led by founder and CEO Dirk Ahlborn, the organization is a federation of departments grinding away on financials, engineering, design and marketing. HTT also has its head in human and cargo transport.
Both rivals indicate that they have preliminary agreements with governments in more than 10 countries, including China, India and the U.K. Prediction: somewhere, a hyperloop will be up and running by 2020.
Do we really have the technology?
Musk imagined the capsules to hover on pressurized air pushed along sleds sitting underneath them. Hard-drives offer solutions, but not with air bearings that thrust at supersonic speeds. And while Musk intended to line the tubes with solar panels, the drain from the hyperloop’s electric propulsion system exceeds what the panels emit, which means grid power will have to be used. Both companies are instead leaning towards maglev, which requires loads of energy and expensive cooling systems. The permanent magnets consume less energy, but the technology is still unproven. And the entire hyperloop concept can’t handle corners because of it’s speed, so finding straight-line routes will come with its own set of geographic challenges.
What’s the difference between hyperloop and other high-speed trains?
Hyperloop One intends to commercialize Musk’s original design, using air bearings that propel air, which it achieves by blasting through a tube at ultra-high speeds. Currently, the bullet trains overseas in Germany, Japan and China use said maglev technology, which elevates train cars using electromagnets — electrically charged coils that produce powerful magnetic fields causing the trains to levitate. By removing friction, the train can catapult at speeds of up to 361 MPH. HTT, however, is getting wise, and has licensed a new technology — passive magnetic levitation — that doesn’t require superconducting magnets; that means no expensive infrastructure required. Rather, these passive magnets retain permanent temperatures.
What kind of regulatory hoops will hyperloop have to jump through?
Expect a whole lot of NIMBYs (not in my backyard). Issues with cutting through federally protected land is a problem, as well as muckin up rights-of-way in already congested cities. And the U.S. government is a regulatory morass, so Hyperloop One and HTT are looking to launch overseas, where transportation needs are more urgent and less subject to bureaucratic interference.
A related model in Switzerland bit the dust after a funding fallout and political retraction, but HTT has secured land for a hyperloop in Slovakia, which they predict will be completed by 2020 — nine years ahead of California’s high-speed rail completion. And another cautionary tale closer to home is New York City in the 19th century, where an air-powered subway car lost financial and political will before completion.
Are there safety concerns?
There’s concern that the G-force caused by the acceleration of hyperloop pods will cause health problems over time. At 760 mph, hyperloop pods travel 30 percent faster than a 747 jet: hyperloop passengers will experience the same G-force exerted by a commercial airplane takeoff for two straight minutes. That can cause your blood to slosh around inside your arteries and veins, not to mention the fact that barf bags might have to be handed out.
Alright, how much is this thing gonna cost?
Too much financial liability could fell an enterprise of this size. Musk estimates $6 billion to build a single hyperloop route, and that’s a conservative estimate. Critics are comparing the venture to the Concorde, a commercial European turbo-jet that sputtered out in 2003 because of regulations and not enough profit (although NASA and Lockheed Martin are trying to revive it). And maglev’s own history has cast a shadow over hyperloop’s beginnings. It was first demonstrated in 1971, but the density of costs delayed the bullet train until 2004 in Shanghai, amounting to $63 million/mile.
Hyperloop investors are hopeful that the trains energy-saving — and thus cost-reducing — properties can help mitigate that. Land costs will also be enormous, so thoughts of placing the tube on elevated pylons is being considered.
Furthermore, an L.A.-to-S.F. hyperloop would have to compete with California’s high-speed rail, set to debut in 2025. Each train will hold over 1,000 passengers, as compared with hyperloop pods, which will likely carry only 20 at a time. Public support could dry up funds and leave hyperloop, like space travel, a pursuit of the super wealthy alone.