The Hyperloop is one of the most exciting technological propositions in recent history. In its simplest form, the Hyperloop is an elevated tube that runs for hundreds of miles between cities, propelling passengers at near supersonic speeds. For example, it promises to cut travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco — a six- to seven-hour drive — to just 30 minutes.
The brainchild of SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the 760-mile-per-hour Hyperloop would be three times faster than the fastest bullet train on earth. Not only that, but the Hyperloop would cost tens of billions less than California’s far slower high-speed railroad, which is expected to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco by 2029.
Floating on air
When Musk initially revealed his proposal for the Hyperloop via a 57-page white paper in August 2013, the idea was met with equal parts enthusiasm and skepticism.
After all, this so-called fifth form of transportation is designed to carry passengers enormous distances inside pods that will race through huge tubes that have had their air pressure reduced to a near vacuum. Enormous air inlets on the fronts of the pods will then pull in air and push it beneath them to create cushions of air that they will float on.
By riding on air, the Hyperloop’s pods avoid resistance from friction caused by wheels. The system’s tubes will be supported aboveground through a series of pylons, and the entire setup will be self-sustaining thanks to external solar panels.
You wouldn’t be alone if you thought that was a lot to swallow. Heck, we can barely keep our highways up and running, let alone get a bullet train system in place; how are we supposed to accept that a completely new form of public transit is anything close to realistic?
But a funny thing happened after Musk released his proposal: People began trying to make the Hyperloop a reality. And it’s not just a handful of dedicated Musk disciples. Two companies with hundreds of employees dedicated to creating their own Hyperloops have already been founded, and thousands of engineering students recently participated in a contest to develop the pods passengers will ride.
So is the construction of the Hyperloop inevitable? Or will the many hurdles it faces, ranging from revenue generation and safety to outright feasibility, derail the plan?
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies
In August 2013, the same month Musk unveiled the Hyperloop plan, entrepreneur Dirk Ahlborn co-founded the crowdsourcing and collaboration platform JumpStartFund. Composed of about 100 developers, engineers, and scientists, the team took interest in the idea of a near supersonic mode of transport and decided to adopt the Hyperloop as its first project.
Just three months later, the team had already incorporated and founded Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. In 2014, HTT released a feasibility study and initial design for its tubes.
Since then, HTT has teamed with a developer and acquired a 5-mile stretch of land along California’s Interstate 5, where the company intends to build its Hyperloop.
The system will be built as part of a new development called Quay Valley. According to Ben Cooke, director of communications for HTT, the Quay Valley system will not only serve as a kind of showcase for HTT’s technologies, but it will also be the first fully operational Hyperloop in the world.
“There will be two stations and a research center along with a variety of pylon designs to showcase the versatility of the system,” Cooke explained. “We want to have certain types of pylons that are available to capture moisture, to be used in regions with drought problems, as well as pylons that produce energy.”
To help create the vacuum pumps needed to keep the Hyperloop’s tubes at a constant low pressure, Cooke said HTT has tapped Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum. The German company’s pedigree includes work on CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. In other words, HTT is quite serious about its Hyperloop.
HTT isn’t completely following Musk’s initial plans for the Hyperloop, though. Whereas Musk intended for the system’s pods to float on a cushion of air, HTT is placing its bets on a magnetic levitation system.
Maglev works by using opposing magnetic fields that repel each other. By giving the bottom of the Hyperloop tube one magnetic field and the pod an opposing field, the pod will float in the tube. Maglev trains that use similar technology are currently in operation around the world and are some of the fastest on earth. Cooke said the company would reveal the details of its maglev system in the coming weeks.
But maglev trains have to fight against wind resistance and the elements. A Hyperloop pod rides in an enclosed tube that’s been depressurized to a near vacuum, drastically reducing wind resistance and allowing the pod to travel at far higher speeds.
HTT is bullish on its system, with Cooke saying the company expects to have its Hyperloop up and running for the public as soon as 2018. That’s just two years to test, build, and get the proper government clearance needed to operate a largely new form of transportation.
Needless to say, the company has its work cut out for it.
But HTT isn’t the only group racing to be the first to build a functioning Hyperloop. Hyperloop Technologies is working on a competing system. Formed in a garage in 2014, the company now has a 50,000-square-foot facility with 120 employees. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when your company is headed by former Cisco executive Rob Lloyd, Uber and Airbnb investor Shervin Pishevar, and XPrize Foundation CEO Peter Diamandis.
But Lloyd and company don’t have any plans for a publicly accessible Hyperloop just yet. Instead, the company is building a test track for its Hyperloop in the Nevada desert. By the end of the year, Lloyd said, Hyperloop Technologies is expected to complete a roughly 2-mile track with a full-size 11-foot-diameter tube.
When the calendar rolls over to 2017, Lloyd expects Hyperloop Technologies to have its tube built, a low-pressure system installed, its pods constructed, and a motor for the pods.
“We are calling this our Kitty Hawk moment,” Lloyd said.
But Lloyd explained that Hyperloop Technologies doesn’t yet know what kind of system its Hyperloop will use to make its pods float — maglev or an air cushion.
“The original architecture is absolutely elegant and we are innovating inside of that,” he said. “We’ll pick the best levitation that fits our case and make that decision in the next few months.”
SpaceX and the pod competition
Of course, no conversation about the Hyperloop would be complete without mentioning SpaceX. Though the company isn’t building a Hyperloop or working with any single organization, it is helping to drive the development of a prototype system.
To that end, SpaceX recently hosted a special SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition at Texas A&M. More than 1,000 students from 120 teams gathered at the event to display their prototype Hyperloop pods.
In the end, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took the top spot and has been invited to test its prototype this summer at SpaceX’s 1-mile-long Hyperloop test track in California.
But there are some doubts
Despite all of the Hyperloop developments, there are still some incredibly complex issues to work out. First off, Musk’s original vision set the price of a Hyperloop from San Francisco to Los Angeles at $6 billion. That includes two one-way tracks and 40 pods. And while Musk went to great lengths to explain how he came to that price, it’s still little more than a guess.
According to Frost & Sullivan’s automotive and transportation program manager Vishwas Shankar, the Hyperloop from Los Angeles to San Francisco could actually cost $16 billion. That’s more than twice Musk’s estimate.
Technology analyst Rob Enderle said he won’t be assured of the feasibility of the Hyperloop until he actually sees a working proof of concept. “The heart of what’s going to assure the feasibility of the product is when we have a running Hyperloop train and show that the idea works,” Enderle explained.
Even if the system’s feasibility can be proven, Enderle said, the Hyperloop has to overcome three main obstacles in order to survive: revenue generation, safety, and customer acceptance.
While Musk’s original paper calls for a version of the Hyperloop that can carry both passengers and freight, Enderle believes that if the system can’t move a comparable amount of freight as a railroad, it will likely suffer revenue issues.
Even if it can generate sufficient revenue, Enderle said, the Hyperloop still presents unusual security challenges. Like planes, for example, the Hyperloop could be a target for terrorists.
An explosion outside the Hyperloop’s tube could potentially rip a hole in it, causing “explosive decompression,” said Enderle. That in turn could create a wall of air that could demolish any pod that encountered it — like a car colliding with a brick wall at more than 700 miles per hour.
And with the Hyperloop’s tubes expected to run for hundreds of miles, preventing some kind of sabotage would require a significant security presence.
Outside of feasibility, funding, and security, though, the biggest hurdle the Hyperloop would have to overcome is public acceptance. After all, a Hyperloop pod would be moving at close to supersonic speeds inside an enclosed tube with no easy exit, Enderle said.
“It’s not clear to me how you’re going to be able to keep people from being freaked out,” he added.
Thilo Koslowski, vice president of automotive and smart mobility at Gartner Research, expressed similar reservations about the Hyperloop.
“At the same time, though,” Koslowski said, “if you do it right, if you expose consumers to this and prove it’s reliable, there is a chance to overcome [these fears].”
Finding a home for the Hyperloop
If the Hyperloop does eventually see the light of day, where will it make its first appearance? According to HTT’s Cooke, the most likely places would be in Asia and the Middle East.
“A full intercity, several-hundred-mile Hyperloop will go through the path of least resistance, which would be Asia and the Middle East,” he said. “In Europe and North America you have too many issues with municipalities and their requirements. They’re not impossible, but they are another thing that has to be dealt with.”
Over the past year, Cooke explained, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has been on a kind of world tour, meeting with companies and officials in those regions.
Cooke says Asia — and China in particular — would be a solid starting point for the Hyperloop, because of both its more welcoming regulatory atmosphere and its desire to cut air pollution while still being able to move huge numbers of people.
“You have cities like Beijing and Shanghai, with millions of people and pollution so bad you can’t see your hand in front of your face,” Cooke said. “They need to be able to get people in and out of the city as quickly and efficiently as possible. Their cars aren’t doing it. Their trains aren’t doing it. Hyperloop is the only thing that could really do this.”
Lloyd’s Hyperloop Technologies is also looking for opportunities overseas. But whereas HTT is targeting its Hyperloop toward passengers, Lloyd and company are looking to move both people and freight.
“From a regulatory perspective it would be easier to get a freight system through regulators, as it would take freight systems off the road,” he said. “We are going to where regulators and governments are supportive and where there is capital to support it.”
What about the U.S.? Cooke says the Hyperloop seems less like a necessity for Americans and more like a novelty.
“Here it’s something that would be cool. Like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to get from New York to D.C. in no time?’ But it’s nowhere near areas like China or India where they are absolutely desperate for a solution like this.”
Washington isn’t deaf to the skepticism companies have toward its willingness to adopt new forms of transportation technology. To that end, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has thrown his support behind the development of the Hyperloop.
Foxx admits that the government isn’t known for being open to new technology, he said during his appearance at the Hyperloop Pod Competition.
“We are looking to play a constructive role in embracing new technologies like the Hyperloop, digging in to see how we can push the boundaries of what’s possible and leading the way toward a bright future for transportation. Hyperloop holds exciting potential and, like other emerging technologies, we have engaged various developers to learn more.”
Don’t bet against Musk
The truth is, the Hyperloop and the possibilities it holds are just the kind of moonshot idea Silicon Valley was built around.
And while it may be hard to picture yourself blasting between major cities in what amounts to an enormous pneumatic tube, it’s important to point out that less than 20 years ago it was just as unimaginable that you could one day buy an electric car that can blow the doors off a Ferrari. Or that we would see the birth of the commercial space race.
Today we have Tesla’s Model S and a rocket that can land itself after going to space.
In other words, if you had to bet on any one person to help get something as ambitious as the Hyperloop off the ground, it would be Musk.