Want to be whisked down a tube at near-supersonic speeds — for the price of a train ticket? Enter the hyperloop. Elon Musk says his test track will be completed next month. But can it work?
What is the hyperloop?
A radical new transportation system that involves pods traveling down a tube very, very quickly. The tube, which could be above or below ground, is almost empty of air, decreasing resistance; the pods levitate, removing friction. In theory, this lets them reach 760 mph — almost the speed of sound.
The technology, currently under development, is getting a lot of hype. The hyperloop’s inventor, Elon Musk, has called it “the fifth great mode of transportation”. He says two miles of test track underneath Los Angeles will be completed on December 10.
This is not as magical as it sounds: Maglev trains in the Far East already use magnetic force to keep the carriages off the ground. Musk’s original idea for the hyperloop was to have the pods float on a cushion of pressurized air (a bit like pucks on an air hockey table). However, engineers have turned to magnetic technology instead.
Why do we need the hyperloop?
Time is money, as they say, and the hyperloop saves commuters a lot of it. You could get from Los Angeles and San Francisco in around half an hour — twice as quick as a plane and a dozen times faster than a car journey.
The hyperloop could potentially be greener than both: it uses relatively little energy, and some of this could be solar. What’s more, according to Musk’s calculations, it would be much cheaper to build than high-speed railways like the one under construction in California right now.
Who is developing it?
It’s complicated. Musk unveiled the concept in 2013 but declared he doesn’t have time to build the hyperloop himself (he is busy with his rocket company SpaceX and car manufacturer Tesla).
So a range of rival companies have cropped up in North America to do it instead, drawing engineers from the likes of NASA and Boeing. Each has its own designs and business plan. Last month, Richard Branson stepped down as chairman of Virgin Hyperloop One, as the company needed “a more hands-on chairman”.
Where and when can I take a ride?
Musk says he will be offering free rides to the public the day after his test tunnel is completed in LA next month.
Meanwhile, governments from Slovakia to South Korea are showing interest. Each company has its own timeframe, but most want to have pods up and running by the start of the next decade. Some may start by transporting cargo, as a way of checking the safety and efficiency of their system.
There must be a catch.
Sceptical experts point to a variety of obstacles. The slightest fault in the tubes could let air in, destroying the low-pressure environment the system needs to run. The sun’s heat will cause the steel in the tubes to expand, and it is not clear how this would be accommodated.
Others raise non-technical issues. Travel at that speed — especially acceleration and deceleration — may be uncomfortable. Public complaints and government regulations could hold back the building of infrastructure. And if constructed above ground, the tubes could be a target for terrorists.
Will it actually happen?
Let’s wait and see. Science-wise, it is already achievable — “hyperloop is like, done,” as one lead engineer put it. The challenge is to make it safe, cheap and comfortable enough to work as an alternative to existing modes of transport. The interest from governments is encouraging and Hyperloop One’s test is a step forward. But there is a long way to go.
Ever the dreamer, Musk is keen to see a hyperloop system in operation, no matter what. Even if it fails commercially, he says, “it would be a really fun ride”.
- Is it more important to invent new modes of transport or improve existing ones?
- Where is the hyperloop most needed? Come up with a route (it can be anywhere in the world) and write a letter to a hyperloop company, explaining why they should build there.
- Elon Musk
- The inventor-cum-entrepreneur is known for his ambitious — some say wacky — projects involving rockets and artificial intelligence. See ColdFusion’s video in Become An Expert.
- The other four being “the ship, the train, the automobile and the airplane”.
- The Shanghai Maglev is currently the fastest train in the world, with a top speed of 267.8 mph.
- Musk believes that the hyperloop only makes sense for journeys under 900 miles. For longer distances, planes travel at cruising speed for long enough that they become more efficient.
- Under construction
- Since Californians approved this gigantic project in 2008, it has hit all kinds of logistical snags and costs have risen to $64 billion (£49bn). In 2013, Musk estimated that a hyperloop line from Los Angeles to San Francisco would cost only $6 billion (£4.6bn), but this figure has been disputed.
- Showing interest
- The UK government has not shown much interest in the hyperloop. But Hyperloop One is nevertheless considering three routes in the country. London to Edinburgh, for example, would take only 50 minutes.