When Elon Musk launched the idea of a fifth mode of transportation, Hyperloop, it was met with enthusiasm, then scepticism. Since the unveiling of Musk’s concept in 2013, a lot of progress has been made. With real-life tests in the Nevada desert and the upcoming Hyperloop Pod Competition, Musk’s design seems to be finding its way into reality. The question remains, though: how feasible is Hyperloop?
With a growing and increasingly mobile population, establishing Hyperloop could be a big step towards transporting lots of people in a sustainable way. When Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk published his 58-page white paper in 2013 proposing a fifth mode of transportation after planes, trains, cars and boats, he emphasised the necessity for it to be self-powering and run on renewable energy. Moreover, it should consume only one-twentieth of energy that a plane consumes, thus cutting emissions drastically.
Musk’s criteria for Hyperloop are that it should be
• Safer • Faster • Lower cost • More convenient • Immune to weather • Sustainably self-powering • Resistant to earthquakes • Not disruptive to those along the route
The proposed system would feature capsules that transport people or freight through tubes above or under ground between cities less than 1500 km apart. Hyperloop would travel up to speeds of 1200 km/h, which would take you from Amsterdam to Paris in about half an hour. The proposed system is somewhat comparable to the old pneumatic tubes used to exchange mail, though it is more complicated.
The idea is to create a low-pressure (near-vacuum) tube to avoid air-resistance. The capsules within the tubes are meant to hover, using a magnetic field or an air cushion, which decreases friction and subsequent energy loss. A combination of batteries and a linear electromotor, which are mainly powered by solar panels on top of the tube, will provide the energy for the pods.
Next-Gen Transport: Achievable or Hype?
Since Elon Musk is a busy man, he has called upon others to pursue the idea, resulting in a competition of which the final phase will take place this summer and allow teams to test their pod designs on a custom-built track at SpaceX’s California headquarters. The number of university students and engineering teams taking part shows the widespread interest in the project. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of doubts.
Attending the test-drive of a Hyperloop prototype in the Nevada desert, New York Times journalist Allison Arieff was not only underwhelmed with Hyperloop’s rather mediocre performance, but was also unable to receive proper answers to her questions concerning regulation, accommodation, environmental consequences and affordability, among others.
Engineers and professors within the areas of urban planning, public policy and transportation have some serious doubts concerning the price tag, which, according to them, will be higher than Musk estimated. Furthermore, it is not clear just how environmentally friendly Hyperloop will actually be. The design suggests using batteries, which are carbon intensive and polluting to produce. Solar panels are supposed to charge these batteries, but there are doubts about this approach as well, since counting on solar energy might not be practical for all places and weather conditions.
These problems were apparent from day one, but it has always been Hyperloop’s advantage that Elon Musk’s proposal was presented as a rough draft with questions to be solved, rather than a foolproof plan of action. Dozens of teams are dealing with Hyperloop’s current flaws and the concept has grown from a mere vision into an 80 million USD venture with global partners in a very short period of time. It is still hard to predict whether or not the fifth mode of transportation will see the light of day. It has potential and maybe this summer’s competition will provide clearer prospects, but for the moment, better hold on to your train ticket.