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Hyperloop shows potential for tech to disrupt transportation infrastructure

This conceptual design rendering provided by SpaceX shows a Hyperloop passenger transport capsule, at a station ready to take on passengers, the core of a high-speed system that billionaire Elon Musk suggested two years ago, that would zoom passenger capsules through elevated tubes at the speed of sound. The 400-mile trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco would take a half-hour. Musks company, SpaceX, announced Monday, June 15, 2015 that it plans to build a one-mile test track next to its headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. The company will hold a competition there next year with teams testing designs for Hyperloop passenger pods.
This conceptual design rendering provided by SpaceX shows a Hyperloop passenger transport capsule, at a station ready to take on passengers, the core of a high-speed system that billionaire Elon Musk suggested two years ago, that would zoom passenger capsules through elevated tubes at the speed of sound. The 400-mile trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco would take a half-hour. Musks company, SpaceX, announced Monday, June 15, 2015 that it plans to build a one-mile test track next to its headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. The company will hold a competition there next year with teams testing designs for Hyperloop passenger pods. AP

Technology is changing the way we travel, a thought that may disturb those who are not in a hurry. Because for some of us, travel should be about the journey as much as the destination. I’m always reminded of the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay:

My heart is warm with friends I make,

And better friends I’ll not be knowing;

Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,

No matter where it’s going.

The great age of rail, long past, still holds its allure.

Business travelers, though, have to be worried about time, which is where Elon Musk’s “Hyperloop” comes in. Unveiled in 2013, the Hyperloop would send passengers or freight in individual or group pods for long distances, at speeds up to 750 miles per hour.

A network of vacuum-filled tubes would be constructed to make all this work, with the individual pods moving through the tubes using a system of magnets that is powered up by solar energy. As conceived by Musk, the system produces very little friction. The long transportation tubes are to be suspended over the ground to protect against earthquakes. So you’re moving along the ground – like a train – but you’re moving at airliner speeds in a pod that has no windows.

Kitty Hawk moment

Musk made the research on the Hyperloop open source, meaning other entrepreneurs could pick up on these ideas and develop them. And now we have Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, the most prominent of the California-based startups trying to bring the idea into reality. CEO Rob Lloyd says the company will test its configuration at a site just north of Las Vegas, calling 2016 “... the year in which we reach our Kitty Hawk moment.”

If speed is the object, consider this: A fully implemented Hyperloop would allow the 400 mile trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles to be reduced to less than an hour. Numbers like that get attention around the globe. In Europe, for example, the country of Slovakia is working with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies to create routes from Bratislava to Vienna and Budapest. Bratislava to Vienna, normally an hour’s drive, would take about eight minutes.

The technologies HTT is working on involve minimizing friction, developing test pods for cargo or passengers, tuning up the electric propulsion system and developing a magnetic “levitation” process that allows the pod to be lifted just off the track. Hyperloop claims its methods would require propulsion for only about five percent of the journey, meaning once a pod got up to speed, it could essentially “glide” for long stretches without any other application of energy.

Meanwhile, Musk’s company SpaceX, better known for building rockets to launch satellites and, potentially, manned missions, is keeping its hand in by hosting a Hyperloop Pod competition, hoping to produce designs for passenger pods. The company is working on a one-mile test track so participants in the competition will be able to test their pod designs.

Tough sell

Our transportation infrastructure is one area that hasn’t been truly disrupted by new technologies, although self-driving cars and Hyperloop work shows that we may be on the cusp of such change. Yes, we do keep improving the product, but let’s face it: The first Boeing 737, a workhorse of today’s airlines, flew in 1968 and we’re not moving people much more efficiently now than we were then. In fact, I would argue that flying is now a far more uncomfortable experience now than it has ever been, with airliners cramped and flights invariably full.

So I’m listening when new ideas are broached, but I can’t say I’m in a hurry to get into a Hyperloop pod. Sensing that people like windows and landscapes, HTT is now working with an augmented reality company to develop digital “windows” that will project images of the landscape outside. The windows would also act as data displays controllable by your phone.

Maybe that will help, but I’d say that the Hyperloop’s biggest hurdle will be marketing. For those of us who love the rhythm of the rails, the idea of a sealed Hyperloop tube induces more anxiety than a center-aisle seat on a trans-Atlantic jet. I may try it one day, but please, you go first.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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