Is Hyperloop overhyped and underlooped?

London to Edinburgh in 50 minutes. Global mass transport that’s as fast as planes without chewing up fossil fuels and spewing out emissions. And all backed by the billionaire enthusiast who pushed electric cars to the forefront and wants to take humans to Mars.

Is Hyperloop overhyped and underlooped?

But is Hyperloop actually possible? Even the experts aren’t sure – some say it’s a matter of time and money (lots of money), but others say it’s nothing more than a high-speed folly.

READ NEXT: How does Hyperloop work?

The latest to jump on the superfast bandwagon of the future is Virgin, which chucked enough money at leading developer Hyperloop One that it’s been rebranded – to the catchy Virgin Hyperloop One. But others disagree, citing concerns about the ability to maintain a low-pressure environment over long periods or the infrastructure required: think long tunnels or in-the- air tubes. Then there’s the small matter of jump-starting and halting the pods without too much discomfort or, you know, death. And the costs required to pull it all together. Will such challenges derail Hyperloop?

History of Hyperloops

The idea of a levitating train whooshing through a near-vacuum tunnel isn’t actually new. British inventor George Medhurst has a patent on one version of the idea – although it’s a bit out of date, having been approved in 1799. Another version was actually developed in London to shuttle letters and parcels in the 1860s with the Pneumatic Despatch Railway, and in New York in 1870 with the Beach Pneumatic Transit line. And “maglev” – magnetic levitation – trains are already zooming around Japan and South Korea.

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(Above: From Elon Musk’s original Hyperloop Alpha concept. Credit: SpaceX)

All these offerings differ from Elon Musk’s version, dubbed Hyperloop Alpha, which he offered up as an “open-source transportation concept” via a 57-page PDF back in 2013.

Musk’s initial plans involved a low-air-pressure tube with a motor on the levitating pod boosting it every 70 miles or so to overcome the much-reduced but still problematic friction. Power is supplied by solar panels along the top of the tube. That tube would be built above ground on pillars or pylons, following motorways where possible to avoid having to buy more land, with small pods carrying 28 people each leaving every 30 seconds and travelling at 1,220km/h (roughly 760mph). Musk predicted it would cost $6 billion to build such a design between San Francisco and LA.

Several companies are developing their own versions of the idea. The two leading contenders are Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies; the former has actually run tests, while the latter has shown off little more than a stack of agreements with countries, including the UAE. Smaller rivals include Canadian TransPod and Dutch university spin-out Hardt Global Mobility, both of which are still working on approval and funds for test tracks. The other company to watch is Musk’s own tunnelling startup, The Boring Company, after the Silicon Valley pioneer tweeted that he has “verbal” government approval to build a Hyperloop in a tunnel connecting New York and Washington, DC.

While Musk’s own efforts are always worth keeping an eye on, Hyperloop One is currently the one to watch. Hyperloop One ran its second major test over the summer, at a 500m track in the Nevada desert. The pod reached a top speed of 309km/h – a far cry from the 1,220km/h promised by Musk, but a clear step forward from early tests.

“When you hear the sound of the Hyperloop One, you hear the sound of the future,” said Hyperloop One co-founder Shervin Pishevar.

Criticism abounds

However, Hyperloop sounds like something other than the future to many industry and academic experts.

The criticism usually centres on these key points: creating a vacuum or low-pressure environment of such scale is difficult, as the tubes will expand from heat and consequently crack, shift and leak; the infrastructure – whether above-ground tubes or tunnels – is difficult to build and maintain to the level needed to handle such forces; the trip would be uncomfortable and any accidents would be violently fatal; and the costs are much higher than Musk claims.

Whether a Hyperloop-style train is possible also depends on exactly what you mean. Musk’s first plans involved a tube set resting in the air on pylons, while his The Boring Company is naturally looking to tunnels; plus, the eventual Hyperloop could be slower than those promised speeds, reducing some of the concerns around heat and comfort. The plans are likely to change further throughout development, so even if the general idea eventually comes to fruition, it may not look very much like Musk’s original sketch.

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(Credit: The Boring Company)

There’s no question that designing and building Hyperloop will be difficult from a technical standpoint, but Dr Hugh Hunt, senior lecturer in mechanics at the department of engineering at the University of Cambridge, argues there are no “showstoppers” preventing it from eventually working. The other three experts we spoke to – who are a mix of critics and proponents of the idea – all agreed that, technically speaking, Hyperloop is possible, though challenging.

“It is quite a big leap in technology to make it happen, but all the separate technologies already exist”

“We have yet to find anything that makes it not valid,” said Emil Hansen, technical director at HypED, a University of Edinburgh spin-off developing a pod for a SpaceX Hyperloop competition. “It is quite a big leap in technology to make it happen, but all the separate technologies already exist. It’s just a question of improving quality, reducing the cost, and reducing the risk involved.”

Professor Herbert Einstein, of MIT’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department, said one of the most pressing issues is maintaining a vacuum over a long distance. However, he notes the difficulty is reduced if a partial vacuum is used, as in Musk’s design. “We’re talking about building the largest vacuum chamber in the world by quite a large margin,” added Hansen. “But it’s still the same technology that’s worked for a very long time.”

Einstein is a tunnelling expert and he doesn’t “see much of a problem” from that point of view, as boring costs have continued to fall. That’s convenient, as the track needs to be straight or very close to it, Hunt notes, and that’s harder above ground. “It’s like when you’re driving fast on a motorway, you don’t want sharp bends,” he explained, noting that’s not easy as the earth moves – even in places not prone to earthquakes. “To keep the track straight, it needs to be readjusted. We do that with railways already, so I suspect to keep Hyperloop tracks straight, we have to do it better and more often.”

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(Credit: Hyperloop One)

For that reason, quake-prone California may not be the best place to trial the in-the-air pylon version of Hyperloop. “The ideal place to start is wide open and flat with not too many things in the way,” Hunt said, suggesting the Abu Dhabi project could well be ideal for the first Hyperloop.

Einstein adds that such technical problems are all solvable, and frankly, that’s what Musk is good at. “That’s one of the things Musk does,” he said. “He is very skilled and intelligent about using existing technologies and making them practically useful. Electric vehicles existed for a long time, but he brought it up to practical use.”

Customer comfort

One of the most high-profile criticisms regards security for these high-profile trains, with critics pointing out that a single hole in a Hyperloop tube could cause a catastrophic failure, killing everyone in the pod. That means a terrorist could very easily do real damage without having to hop onboard first, as it’s difficult to secure the entire length of the tube. However, again, underground tunnels could help here.

But intentional violence and high-speed accidents aside, Hyperloop also requires accelerating to high speeds for several minutes. We’re used to that for a shorter period on planes, but passengers will feel such forces for much longer on Hyperloop. “It won’t be comfortable, we would have to get used to it,” explained Hunt.

Moreover, Hansen notes, air travel has plenty of other discomforts: intense security screening, long loading times and airport locations far out of cities. In theory, Hyperloop’s train-style infrastructure will slash some of that faff.

“I don’t see Hyperloop as a feasible passenger transport mode, simply because it would be very difficult to compete with air transport”

Assuming the technical hurdles can be cleanly leapt, costs alone could derail the idea. “Hyperloop, meaning a high-speed transport device enclosed in a tube and propelled by electric power, is technically possible,” said Genevieve Giuliano, chair in effective local government and director of METRANS transportation centre at the University of Southern California. “[But] I don’t see Hyperloop as a feasible passenger transport mode, simply because it would be very difficult to compete with air transport, and the high speeds will not translate into markedly shorter trips.”

She notes that as Hyperloop is an independent system, goods and people need to be transferred to other transport at each end, cutting into speeds and adding cost, just as air travel does, with as much time spent getting to the airport and boarding the plane as the actual flight for shorter journeys.

“Because it must be built from scratch, it will be costly to build, and it has to have right-of- way,” she added. “In order to cover the costs of construction and operation, it would need a lot of traffic. The question is where is a sufficiently strong market for such a service.”

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(Credit: Hyperloop One)

Of course, until a Hyperloop is actually built, it’s difficult to tot up the costs: a NASA paper claims Hyperloop is faster and cheaper than short-haul flights, but academics at the University of Queensland suggest Musk’s estimates are a tenth of what they should be. It will be expensive, but hey – that’s why we have billionaires like Musk and Branson, after all.

However, why chuck billions at pods that so far only go 300km/h when we already have trains topping speeds of 360km/h and planes to take us further distances? Is it worth spending billions to go faster or to compete with air travel?

“Hyperloop is selling speed, so it is competing with air transport,” noted Professor Giuliano. “The air system is a dense network that takes you or your packages anywhere you want to go. Typically proponents of new technology don’t think about the potential for competition from old technology. We should not expect that the air cargo industry will not innovate and figure out ways to compete.”

Why it’s a good idea

Assuming the technical hurdles can be traversed successfully, there are plenty of good reasons to build Hyperloop trains – including their environmental credentials.

Rather than asking if Hyperloop is technically possible, we should be asking a different question, said Hunt. “Is carrying on burning fossil fuels technically possible – well, it obviously is, but it’s a really stupid idea,” he said. “So if we’re not going to be burning fossil fuels to fly, then what are we going to do instead of long distance flying? What I like about Hyperloop is it’s one of the few serious attempts at addressing that problem.”

Analysis by the US Department of Transportation suggests Hyperloop is six times more energy efficient than air travel, while academics at Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg calculated a Hyperloop could cut 140,000 tonnes of carbon emissions by keeping freight off motorways.

“The more we get young people interested in wacky engineering ideas, the better, really”

Alongside that, Musk’s latest project – whether it’s built by The Boring Company or rivals – is rather inspiring. “I think it’s really exciting,” said Hunt. “The more we get young people interested in wacky engineering ideas, the better, really. Even if it turns out not to work, it’s an exciting thing to be working on.”

He added: “If we only ever try to do things where we can already see how it would work, then I suspect we won’t really be ever coming up with particularly exciting new ideas. Let’s push ourselves outside our comfortable boundaries, and who knows what we’ll come up with.”

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