Raleigh to Charlotte in 22 minutes? NCDOT transportation summit looks to the future.

Among the speakers at the N.C. Transportation Summit on Wednesday was the representative of a company that has developed technology that he said could whisk a pod full of people or cargo through a tube from Raleigh to Charlotte in about 22 minutes.

The two-day summit at the Raleigh Convention Center was organized by the N.C. Department of Transportation to look at how people might get from place to place in the future and what governments at all levels should do to get ready. There were sessions on population growth, changing demographics and the need to find new kinds of revenue to replace the gas tax in the face of more fuel-efficient and electric vehicles.

But much of the focus on the first day was on new and emerging technologies, such as drones, self-driving cars and the use of digital and data analytics. Secretary of Transportation Jim Trogdon led a panel discussion on “disruptive technologies” that included representatives of GM and 3M and two local companies: TransLoc, which develops ways to make it easier to use mass transit, and drone company PrecisionHawk.

Trogdon opened with photos of Lime bikes and electric scooters and asked people to remember the day they simply showed up on the streets of Raleigh, Charlotte and other cities.

“These are examples of new and disruptive technologies and how these disruptions will change the very nature of our entire industry,” he said. “How do we prepare for this change even though we cannot predict what is coming? How do we plan the transportation systems of the future when we don’t really have a good idea of what the future holds?”

No form of transportation seemed more futuristic than the Virgin Hyperloop One, the tube that its inventors say can move people at speeds of up to 670 mph. NCDOT invited Ryan Kelly, head of marketing and communications for Virgin Hyperloop One, to come from Los Angeles to explain how it works.

In simple terms, an electric current moves magnetically-levitated pods through a long tube from which nearly all of the air has been removed, greatly reducing drag. Kelly described it as the first new form of mass transportation since the Wright brothers developed powered flight more than a century ago.

Hyperloop One built a 550-yard-long test tube in the Nevada desert, where pods moved at up to 240 mph in December 2017, according to the company; engineers said they could go much faster with a longer tube, where they wouldn’t need to brake as soon. Kelly likened those tests to what the Wright brothers did on the Outer Banks.

“There’s a huge difference between a Kitty Hawk moment and actually commercializing a system where passengers and cargo will ride,” he said.

Kelly said industry, government and university groups are studying the possible use of Hyperloop One in Texas, Colorado and Ohio. In Missouri, officials are looking at the feasibility of building a tube down the median of Interstate 70 between St. Louis and Kansas City.

But the first hyperloop will probably be built in India, Kelly said, connecting Mumbai on the coast with the city of Pune, about 2.5 hours inland by car. Construction should begin this year, he said, with a system up and operating by 2028.

Kelly said the pods could run every few seconds and would operate without a conductor or operator on board. Construction costs would vary from place to place, he said, but the estimate in Missouri is about $33 million a mile. At that cost, a hyperloop between Raleigh and Charlotte would cost more than $5.5 billion to build, not including the cost of land.

Even so, the company estimates the system could operate in Missouri by charging about $30 for a one-way ticket to cross the state in less than half an hour, a trip that takes more than six times that by car.

If the idea of going 670 mph through a tube sounds scary, Kelly says it shouldn’t. He said starting a hyperloop trip will feel a bit like taking off in an airplane.

“We all fly in planes, and we’ve kind of gotten over that,” he said. “Actually being in this closed environment, unlike a plane, you won’t have turbulence, because we are a closed system. So when you take off using our propulsion system, you will glide and actually be levitating.”

Deputy Secretary of Transportation David Howard, who visited the hyperloop test tube with students from N.C. A&T University last summer, said he’d like to see NCDOT explore the feasibility of using the technology in North Carolina. Nina Szlosberg-Landis, the vice chairwoman of the state Board of Transportation, said while Hyperloop One may seem “really out there,” it’s hard to predict the future.

“When you see how fast all these technologies are advancing, you really have to keep an open mind,” Szlosberg-Landis said after hearing Kelly speak. “Obviously, this is very well-financed, people are investing in it. They’ve got projects that they are getting ready to put on the ground. I think we’ve really got to give it serious consideration, just like all the other stuff that’s happening.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.