How many hurdles stand in the way of hyperloops becoming a commercial reality?
- Hyperloops are a new type of transportation technology that involves vacuum tubes and passenger pods traveling at ultra-fast speeds.
- Although no commercial hyperloops exist yet, a handful of companies around the world are building test tracks, some in partnerships with national governments.
- Hyperloops could prove to be a faster and more environmentally sustainable form of transportation than flying and high-speed rail, though many obstacles remain.
Virgin Hyperloop has successfully completed the world's first passenger test of hyperloop technology, a new form of high-speed transportation.
The test was conducted Sunday in a desert outside of Las Vegas, where the company built a 500-meter vacuum tube as a test track. Inside the tube, a pod carrying two passengers used electric propulsion and electromagnetic levitation to whisk above the track, reaching 107 mph in about six seconds before coming to a stop.
Virgin's test was designed to prove the safety of hyperloop technology for humans. The company, founded in 2014, hopes to build long-distance hyperloops that travel up to 600 mph, meaning a trip from New York City to Washington, D.C. would take about 30 minutes.
"With today's successful test, we have shown that this spirit of innovation will in fact change the way people everywhere live, work, and travel in the years to come," said Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, in a statement.
It's a big milestone for the technology, which Elon Musk first proposed in 2012. Still, Virgin and other hyperloop companies have many hurdles to overcome before hyperloops become a viable form of transportation.
In addition to proving hyperloops are safe for humans at faster speeds, two major obstacles include:
- Cost: Building and maintaining miles of hyperloop tubes would be incredibly expensive, with leaked documents from 2016 suggesting that each mile of track could cost between $84 million and $121 million. It's unclear whether hyperloops could sell enough tickets at high enough prices to turn a profit, while competing with airlines and railways.
- Land: Due to the high speeds, hyperloop tracks would need to be constructed in near-straight lines. Turns would have to be wide: A Virgin Hyperloop engineer told the New York Times that a hyperloop pod would need about six miles of track to complete a 90-degree turn at 600 mph. It's unclear how or whether Virgin (or other hyperloop companies) would be able to buy or gain rights for all the necessary land to build the tracks.
Artist rendering of Virgin Hyperloop passenger pod
Hyperloop companies, which would be overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration, would also have to sort out issues related to headway, maintaining a vacuum in the tubes, emergency exits, government regulations, passenger capacity and the simple possibility that people might not want to shoot through a vacuum tube at 600 mph.
(On that note: It's unlikely that hyperloops would reach average speeds of 600 mph because the pods would need to accelerate and decelerate at slower speeds for safety and comfort reasons.)
But hyperloop technology is moving forward. In July, the U.S. government published a policy document intended to serve as a regulatory "roadmap" for hyperloop companies seeking to test their technology in the country. Virgin recently announced plans to build a $500 million "certification center" in West Virginia, where the company will test future versions of its hyperloops, aiming to get government approval.
Virgin plans to build its first operational hyperloop in India, whose government has been in talks with the company since 2017. While still in the planning stages, the company hopes to have a commercial hyperloop up and running in India by around 2030.
Underground tunnel built by the Boring Company
Virgin isn't alone in the hyperloop space. For example, there's Los Angeles-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which is working on test projects in the United Arab Emirates, France, and Germany, where the company aims to move cargo through hyperloops. The company said it hopes to open its first commercial operation by 2022.
Hardt Global Mobility, a Dutch hyperloop startup, hopes to build a 10,000-kilometer network of hyperloops throughout Europe. Meanwhile, Elon Musk's Boring Company is building underground tunnels designed for cars traveling short distances. But the company says its tunnels "are designed and built in preparation for their eventual transition to Hyperloop."Some critics of hyperloop technology say it's a "utopian vision" that's unlikely to pan out, while others note that hyperloops would essentially be maglev trains, but more expensive and faster (because the vacuum tube reduces drag). But if successful, hyperloops could not only decrease travel times, but also become a more sustainable form of transportation, potentially magnitudes more efficient than high-speed rail and flying.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies recently unveiled the Quintero One, a hyperloop passenger capsule that can travel at a top speed of about 760 mph.
- Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, or HTT, is one of several companies seeking to build the world's first hyperloop.
- HTT's new passenger pod can carry about 30 to 40 people, and the company plans to test it at a track in France.
- The CEO hopes to have a full-scale hyperloop up and running in about three years.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, one of several companies racing to build the world's first hyperloop, unveiled a prototype of a full-scale passenger capsule recently in Spain.
Dubbed the Quintero One, the sleek passenger pod measures 105 feet long, weighs about five tons and is capable of carrying between 28 and 40 people at a time. It's been described as an airplane without wings, an apt description considering the pods would levitate above a magnetic track in a tube that's virtually free of friction, a technique called electromagnetic propulsion. This would allow each pod to travel at speeds exceeding 700 mph, fast enough to travel the 380 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about 30 minutes.
Artist rendering of a passenger capsule on track.
HTT CEO Dirk Ahlborn hopes to have a full-scale hyperloop running in a few years.
"In three years, you and me, we can take a hyperloop," he told CNBC, adding that widespread implementation of hyperloop systems could occur within five to 10 years. "It's definitely much sooner than anybody would expect," Ahlborn said.
Based in California, HTT has said it wants to be the first company to build a hyperloop in the U.S. In February, the company published a video teasing the possibility of building a hyperloop that would connect Cleveland to Chicago, though Ohio officials said they'll need to complete a months-long feasibility test before HTT could potentially pursue the plans.
Artist rendering of a hyperloop station.
HTT plans to test Quintero One at a track in Toulouse, France. The company has already signed agreements with China, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates to build full-scale hyperloops in the coming years.
In addition to HTT, two other companies are vying to build the first full-scale hyperloop in the U.S.: Richard Branson's Virgin Hyperloop One, which he hopes to have ready within three years; and Elon Musk's Boring Company, which recently began building a prototype of a tunnel system that could someday connect residential garages to a hyperloop.
Superfast hyperloop travel gets closer to reality as Elon Musk receives "verbal" government approval for a route linking NYC and Washington.
In news that may finally make us feel like we’re living in the future, Elon Musk says he got a “verbal” approval from the government to build an underground Hyperloop between New York and Washington, D.C. A trip that would usually take three hours by train would be only 29 minutes in the 700 mph Hyperloop. The route would also cover Philadelphia and Baltimore.
The announcement, of course, came as a tweet:
Just received verbal govt approval for The Boring Company to build an underground NY-Phil-Balt-DC Hyperloop. NY-DC in 29 mins.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 20, 2017
Elon Musk's growing relationship with President Trump can result in revolutionizing the country's aging infrastructure.
Elon Musk recently surprised many by tweeting out support for Rex Tillerson, President Trump’s Secretary of State nominee. Seen as a champion of clean energy, Musk seemed unlikely to get so publicly behind Tillerson, given his past as the CEO of ExxonMobil, a fossil fuel powerhouse. While the support for Tillerson appears influenced by Musk’s recent meeting with Trump, one issue in particular may explain why Musk would offer his endorsement - carbon tax.
He singled that out in a Twitter interview with Gizmodo, where he first noted that Tillerson was a “competent” executive:
"Also, he [Rex Tillerson] has publicly acknowledged for years that a carbon tax could make sense. There is no better person to push for that to become a reality than Tillerson. This is what matters far more than pipelines or opening oil reserves. The unpriced externality must be priced."
Indeed, Tillerson has supported carbon tax since at least 2007 as a preferred form of environmental regulation. In a 2009 speech he called it “predictable, transparent, and comparatively simple to understand and implement.”
What would the carbon tax do? It would essentially be a fee tied to the carbon content of fuels, levied for releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Its proponents think it would reduce such emissions and slow down climate change and be a simpler form of environmental regulation. Some forms of carbon tax have so far been enacted in Australia, Sweden and other countries.
Elon Musk elaborated on why the carbon tax is necessary by describing the production of carbon dioxide (CO2) as consumption of the common good, an action that should have a reasonable price.
“The problem is the age-old tragedy of the commons. The common good being consumed is atmospheric and oceanic carbon capacity, which currently has a price of zero. This results in an error in market signals and far more CO2 is generated than should be. We won’t ever go to zero CO2, but the rate over time should be dropped far below what it is today,” said Musk.
In a previous interview at Sorbonne in France, Musk compared the carbon tax to garbage collection, with the tax being necessary to reflect the cost of the consequences of consuming carbon.
“It’s not as though we should say, in the case of garbage, ‘Have a garbage-free society.’ It’s very difficult to have a garbage-free society. But it’s just important that people pay for the garbage collection.”
As to how exactly the carbon tax would be effective, Musk thinks a gradual approach will have the right impact.
“Start low and increase it until the desired outcome is achieved. This can be offset by a reduction in other taxes, like sales tax, which is quite regressive. This is analogous to taxing cigarettes and alcohol more than fruits and vegetables, which everybody agrees makes sense. We should have higher taxes on the things that science says are probably bad for us than those that are probably good for us,” explained Musk.
What’s more, Elon Musk apparently brought up the carbon tax in his meeting with Trump. With Musk said to enjoy a burgeoning relationship with Trump, united by big thinking and potential overlapping interests in infrastructure projects like updating the electrical grid, his championing of the carbon tax may prove crucial. Will President Trump embrace it? So far there is little indication this would happen but it’s also just the beginning of the new administration’s term.
Musk’s take on updating the electrical grid includes making it smart, with a plan existing for Tesla to at some point offer grid services through batteries that can be added to the grid.
Other infrastructure projects from Musk's head that could appeal to President Trump include his SpaceX business, with plans to colonize Mars, his new tunneling business, and even Hyperloops. Musk’s proposal for superfast travel via hyperloops is nearing reality, with a full test coming in the next three months.
The unlikely pairing of two iconic figures of the modern age could result in a relationship that benefits American infrastructure for generations to come. Another visionary and controversial billionaire Peter Thiel, who has been close to both men, called them surprisingly similar - a factor that might prove deciding in such a partnership.
“I’m going to get in trouble, but they are [similar], actually,” Thiel told the New York Times. “They’re both grandmaster-level salespeople and these very much larger-than-life figures.”
U.S. President Donald Trump (C) greets Wendell Weeks (R) of Corning, Elon Musk of SpaceX (L) and other other business leaders as he arrives for a meeting in the Roosevelt Room at the White House January 23, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Elon Musk's cryptic messages about a mysterious tunneling project in California are getting more substantive.
Already an enterpreneurial legend, creating revolutionary companies in several industries, Elon Musk wants to transform transportation by tunneling under cities. Maybe.
The current innovation by the rule-breaking Musk got out into the world, as important things do nowadays, via Twitter. With Musk’s SpaceX office in Los Angeles located in a heavy traffic area near the airport, he's been tweeting in December 2016 what he could do about it. Fed up with the traffic, he could start boring underground, a movie villain move.
Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging...
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 17, 2016