How older tech is inspiring Hyperloop travel.
For transportation nerds, Elon Musk's Hyperloop holds a special place in the imagination. Progress in the space usually involves incremental steps to suit the places we've already built. The Hyperloop, as described by Musk in a 2013 white paper, is a 760-mph leap that promises whole new patterns of settlement and activity to follow behind it.
The real Hyperloop will be powered by magnets, but so far it has made its way through the world propelled by hot air. Credulous, click-chasing reporters have broadcast the claims of various Hyperloop entrepreneurs who have run with Musk's idea of shooting pods through a sealed tube at high speeds, and governments around the world have gone right along with it. A working full-scale Hyperloop is still years away from reality, but I, for one, already feel like I've been taken for a ride.
Last year, I checked in with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a company that hopes to pioneer terrestrial transit at the speed of sound using a cadre of far-flung engineers collaborating on Google Docs. It has been two-plus years since HTT's co-founder said, "We've solved all the technical issues," but the team has yet to test a full-scale prototype. That hasn't stopped HTT from getting government funding from the US state of Ohio to the Chinese hinterland.
Something interesting is happening as HTT and other firms move forward with their plans: The Hyperloop is starting to look more familiar than space-age. The HTT car, for example, is not the bobsled-size carriage imagined by Musk, but closer to the size of a needle-nosed Shinkansen train car. That design choice brings the idea of Hyperloop infrastructure away from Musk's initial vision of a nimble, easy-to-build pipeline and closer to the costly, time-consuming right-of-way whose pursuit characterises the construction of roads and railways.
The vehicle isn't the only part of the Hyperloop that's coming to resemble more traditional transportation options.
Recently, I sat down with Josh Geigel, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Virgin Hyperloop One, the more serious Hyperloop venture. What Hyperloop One has going for it is an actual test track where reporters have been invited to watch a pod achieve speeds of 240 miles per hour.
But that's just the technology. As a transportation solution, Hyperloop One is starting to lay down some parameters on what will and won't work. Carrying small numbers of people, as the initial concept aimed to do? "I can't imagine a system moving less than 4,000-5,000 people an hour and paying for itself," Geigel said. Routes stretching across a large country? The sweet spot, said Geigel, would be under 200 miles.
When Geigel outlined how his tubes would load up 16,000 passengers per hour on its first projected route in the Indian state of Maharashtra - a carrying capacity approaching the Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansen - he explained that the system would launch "convoys" of "pods" that would leave the hub together and wind up in different destinations.
In short, Hyperloop One's project is beginning to sound a bit like a high-speed rail line. Not coincidentally, Geigel is now estimating the system costing 60-70 per cent the cost of high-speed rail - not, as Musk once projected, 10 per cent or less.
So, will we one day travel from town to town like spitballs in a straw? Maybe! But not if, when starry-eyed technologists come to face the reality of regulations, rights-of-way, and economics, they find something to like in the way things have always been done. Turns out it's easier to use the wheel than to reinvent it.
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