Hyperloop – A transport revolution?

by Nigel Hurst on August 13, 2013

Over the past few days I’ve been reading with great interest about a new hypothetical type of high speed ground transportation.  Dubbed the ‘Hyperloop’, this near supersonic system of pods and tubes could one day see passengers, freight and even cars being transported the 610km between Los Angeles and San Francisco in an astonishing 30 minutes, at speeds of over 1,220 km/h. Compared with the average cruising speed of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner at a mere 903 km/h, suddenly the speed prospects of the Hyperloop become quite exciting.

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Hyperloop is the brainchild of Elon Musk, a South African born America entrepreneur with a proven track record of turning ideas into reality: the Falcon rocket system for Nasa, the Tesla electric car, and now the space exploration company Space X. These are all the result of the self-made millionaire’s vision for innovation and ways of seeking new solutions to existing problems.

The idea behind the Hyperloop is very similar to the vacuum tubes which were often seen in shops and factories, transporting cash, mail and small packages around the facilities. Hyperloop is effectively a scaled up version with the passenger pods being “shot” – for want of a better word – through enclosed transportation tubes, which would be elevated and built along existing public highways. With minimal land requirements and columns placed every 30 meters, reduced construction time and costs would make such a project cheaper than existing heavy-rail high speed train technology. Immune from the weather, the computer controlled Hyperloop system would in theory offer safe and high frequency running, city centre to city centre.

But could the Hyperloop work in Europe? Could we one day be travelling the 1,049km from Paris to Berlin in 50 minutes, departing from the city centre every 30 seconds at peak time in a small, solar powered pod being propelled by fans and levitated by magnets? Such a technology would be incredibly innovative, would change the way we live, and would seriously disrupt the competing airline and railway industries if it ever became successful.

Hyperloop_abstractOne day, commuting between the major cities of Europe could become a reality for all workers, and not just a necessary inconvenience for some business people. Split second departures when you want to depart, from the heart of the city and at a reasonable price could help revolutionise the way we work in and travel around mainland Europe. The workforce could be become more mobile and adaptive to short or long term change. Not to mention the many advantages such technology could bring to tourism, or even the logistics industry.

Perhaps the greatest potential with Hyperloop is that Musk is throwing out the idea as an open source project for others to pick up and develop. Citing his lack of time due to his current focus on the Space X project, Musk is keen for others to innovate further and develop the idea into commercial reality. From a technological perspective, there are many fundamental challenges to overcome. From a factory produced, mass production of standard tubes, structural support and pods perspective, the challenges are more straight forward. From a public perception perspective, strapping one’s self into a windowless, tiny pod and being propelled at almost the speed of sound may not appeal to all, even if the feeling of acceleration and deceleration has been likened to that of an aeroplane taking off and landing.

elon musk in hyperloopSo Science Fiction or one day science fact? Given Musk’s track record of success and the current media interest in the idea, one can believe the concept may one day be a success, if demand for even greater higher speed city centre to city centre ground transportation is not eroded by our ability to work and communicate more and more efficiently by the internet. A potential new type of infrastructure appearing across Europe, commanding broadly straight lines between stations due to the high speed requirements.

In one form or another, and perhaps with not such incredible high speeds, Hyperloop is one innovative transportation idea we may not have heard the last of.

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