The Hyperloop

Science fiction or the future of transport?

Credit: Redd Angelo

The idea of transporting people via sealed tubes has existed for over 150 years and is a concept often featured in science fiction, both past and present. Pneumatic trains were even tested in London’s Underground in the 1860’s for a while. They are perceived as a form of fast, efficient transport – everything our own Dublin Bus is not. Indeed, as a sci-fi concept, it seems so outlandish an idea that engineers and scientists might be reluctant to take on such an advanced project.

However, a lot of things we have today would seem outlandish to a spectator from 1967. Did they imagine the internet, prosthetic limbs, GPS or the latest iPhone? It is more likely that people imagined a future with robot butlers, flying cars, chrome everything and computers weighing one tonne as opposed to 30 tonnes. The point is, in our timeline it can be difficult not to project the present onto our imagination of the future. Back to the Future, for example, does just that in its 1989 sequel where the depiction of 2015 includes Jaws 19 showing in cinemas and fax machines in every room of the household.

It takes a particular type of person to take an outlandish idea and convince the world it will work. These people are usually scientists and engineers with the know-how, but also entrepreneurs and business people with the ability to turn eyes in places where it matters. Elon Musk is a name associated with big companies like Paypal, Tesla, SpaceX, and the Hyperloop transportation system. When asked whether he identified with Thomas Edison or Nikola Tesla – the great rival inventors of the 19th century – he said he was “more of an Edison man”. In his words, “Edison brought his stuff to market and made those inventions accessible to the world, whereas Tesla didn’t really do that.” Musk’s ultimate goal is to reduce the “risk of human extinction” by “making life multi-planetary” – an outlandish claim.

Musk put forward the idea of the Hyperloop project with the publication of a paper in 2013. In it, the Hyperloop is envisioned as a low-pressure tube through which levitating pods containing approximately 30 passengers are propelled to speeds of over 1100 km/h using electromagnets. For the past 100 years there have been four modes of public transport: road, rail, boat and plane. Together, they accommodated the increasing growth and connectivity of the global population throughout the 20th century and continue to improve today. However, Elon Musk aspired to the creation of a “fifth mode of transport” for the 21st century.

In the paper, Musk discusses the proposed Los Angeles to San Francisco high-speed rail, spanning 550 km. He expresses his contempt for the project, questioning why “Silicon Valley and JPL – doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?”. The project, set for completion in 2029, would cost over 60 billion USD and bring the journey time between the two major cities to 2.5 hours, while a Hyperloop along the same route would cut journey times to 30 minutes and cost just six billion USD, being cheaper and faster for both state and passenger. The hyperloop would also be self-sustaining in power, as the tube would be fitted with solar panels across the length of the journey, providing a surplus of electricity which can feed the grid.

Of course, a lot of questions come to mind in terms of safety. What if a capsule depressurizes? What if the tube repressurizes? What about earthquakes or on-board emergencies? These issues are addressed in the paper: emergency exits and repressurization zones would be located intermittently along the tube, and small wheels would be deployed to bring the capsule to them. The tubes would also be constructed on pylons which would accommodate length fluctuations caused by earthquakes. All capsules would be in contact with a station operator. Musk claims that these safeguards make the Hyperloop far safer than flying.

Musk is not working on the project himself but has tasked SpaceX with hosting pod design and testing competitions for student teams throughout the world. The most recent one was held on 27 August, in which one team designed a pod which reached 324 km/h in 1.2 km of evacuated tube. This was a remarkable achievement, given the same team achieved a top speed of only 93 km/h in the previous competition in January. Following that, SpaceX announced the next Hyperloop pod competition, for which Musk hopes to see entries reach speeds of 800 km/h to 950 km/h.

In the meantime, numerous Hyperloop startups have appeared and have already made proposals and feasibility studies on potential routes. Hyperloop One is the biggest of these and have even developed and tested their own pod independently of SpaceX’s competition. Proposed routes include Glasgow to Cardiff via Edinburgh, Newcastle, Nottingham, Cambridge, London, Oxford and Bristol (1060 km in 89 minutes), a ring in Germany connecting Hamburg, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich, Nuremberg, Leipzig and Berlin (1991 km in 142 minutes), Helsinki to Stockholm (480 km in 28 minutes) and Dubai to Abu Dhabi (150 km in 12 minutes).

It’s easy to be cynical about projects like Hyperloop, which have so much to offer but can go wrong in so many ways. We have been disappointed in the past with equally ambitious plans. In 2010, the Obama Administration aimed to return man to the moon by 2020, but budget cuts shelved that promise. Mars One, a private endeavour, aimed to send man to Mars by 2024, partially funded through broadcasting the mission as a reality show/documentary. However, suspicions began to arise about the feasibility of the project, with some sources going so far as to call it a scam.

Hyperloop is an ambitious project that has never been done before and, up until recently, was considered science fiction. But like all new ideas, no one can know for sure whether the project will be a success or not. While it’s amusing to look back at all the wacky, zany predictions from the past, we must realise that we too are confined to a bubble, only able to predict the future based off current projections. Will we have paper-thin smartphones with 12 gigapixel cameras by 2067? Ultra-fast 10G internet? Fifa ‘67 in flawless VR where your dexterity doesn’t quite compensate for your lack of spatial awareness? Probably not. At least not in the same way we do today, because like the Hyperloop, it only takes one potential idea to completely alter the path of science and engineering. It was the same with the internet, the airplane, the steam turbine, farming, fire. If it’s not the Hyperloop, it will always be something else.