Jul 24 2018

Are Hyperloops the Future?

Starting around 1550 primitive railroads were developed as a way to move coal, first within increasingly deep mines, and then from the increasingly distant coal mines to the towns and cities where the coal was needed. At first they were simply wooden rails to help support the wheels of carriages on soft dirt roads. Ties were added for further support. Rails were changed to iron and then steel to add durability. Eventually steam-powered engines were used to move the rail cars.

Even though rail lines were laid to move coal and metal ores from mines, it was simple to add a car for people, which was just an afterthought. Railroads became an efficient way to quickly move large loads and lots of people at high speed over long distances, and were central to the industrial revolution.

Later motorized carriages (cars) became popular. Gasoline powered internal combustion engines beat out steam engines and electrical vehicles when Ford built his factory and outproduced all competition.

Soon after the Wright Brothers worked out the technology for powered controlled flight, airplanes were used for commercial and military purposes, and soon to move passengers.

These technologies connect the world, making transport convenient and efficient. An older technology, shipping, still moves a lot of goods around the world.

It has therefore been about a century since we have added an entirely new category of mass transit (except for newer types of trains – see below). The movie, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, is still relevant. Further, the speed of these technologies has largely plateaued (as I have discussed before). Commercial jets travel at about the same speed as they did 50 years ago. Regular trains have peaked at their maximum safe speed.

The only real new transport advance has been the bullet trains and maglev trains. Bullet trains are just optimized passenger trains with rails and trains built for speed. Maglevs use magnetic repulsion to float the cars above the rails, reducing friction. Still, they are nice and I would welcome them in the US. The first bullet train came into service in Japan in 1964, 54 years ago. This is still among the fastest passenger trains. The first maglev was put into service in 1984 Р34 years ago.

The Shanghai maglev train can reach speeds of up to 268 mph. Japan is opening its own maglev line, which boasts speeds up to 374 mph in test tracks. We will have to see how fast the commercial lines go.

Bullet trains and maglevs have pushed train speeds much higher than traditional rails, but these are still slower than commercial jets, which travel around 600-700 mph (the sound barrier in 767 mph). We have briefly flirted with supersonic commercial jets, but these have so far not proven financially sustainable.

So basically for my entire life the fastest way to travel between distant cities for an average passenger has not changed at all. What new technology will break through this barrier? As I discussed before, some companies are betting on supersonic jets. Maglevs may still be able to get faster, and may be the best option for moderate distance travel. Others (like Elon Musk) believe that the way to go is the hyperloop.

What is the Hyperloop?

A hyperloop is a train system built inside a large tube, that is sealed so that the air can be removed. A partial vacuum inside the tube would significantly reduce air resistance, which also means that the train (or “pod”) can go at speeds faster than the speed of sound if the air pressure is low enough.

SpaceX is running a competition to develop this technology. Recently a team in Germany won a round of the competition by breaking the record for pod speed within a 1 km test track – 457 km/hr, or 290 mph.

So far this is not even as fast as the fastest test maglev. Musk believes this technology will be able to achieve >1,000 mph. If that is the case it will then become faster than commercial jets, finally decreasing the fastest commercial travel time between distant cities.

But of course that is a big “if.” It remains to be seen if this technology is viable. Can they achieve safe speeds fast enough to justify the extreme infrastructure cost? Building the tubes capable of supporting a near vacuum is a huge infrastructure cost. The advantages will have to be worth it.

This is no different, however, than any new technology. Building a rail system, or a system of roads, oil refineries, and gas stations, or of airports were a huge infrastructure cost. Building maglev rails is a huge infrastructure cost. That is always the limiting factor when trying to introduce a transformative technology like this.

Even just a decade ago, self-driving cars were at the X-prize stage, with teams racing to develop the basic technology. Now, the technology is totally viable and on the cusp of coming into extensive use (despite a few highly publicized setbacks).

The hyperloop is a completely solvable engineering problem, that does not seem as if it requires any new material or technology. Incentivizing teams to develop the technology has worked in the past, and seems like a viable plan. I hope it delivers.

But skepticism is appropriate. There are technological and commercial barriers to adoption, and competition from supersonic jets and maglevs. Perhaps all three technologies will provide faster commercial travel in the future, or perhaps none of them will.



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