ON JULY 29TH 2017, THE FUTURE OF TRAVEL CAME A LITTLE CLOSER.
Amid the sagebrush of the Nevada desert, in a concrete tube depressurized to 200,000ft above sea level – close to the pressure in outer space – Hyperloop One’s first-generation passenger pod reached a top speed of 310km/h, almost three times faster than the previous test. And traveled 500m.
Not the longest journey to be sure. Nor the fastest. But a real step towards a hyperlooped world.
“This is the beginning, and the dawn of a new era of transportation,” says Shervin Pishevar, Executive Chairman and Co-founder of Hyperloop One. His company isn’t the only one out there developing Hyperloop technologies. Right now however, they’re ahead of the pack.
It’s been five years since entrepreneur and lord of the future, Elon Musk, first articulated his vision of pods zooming passengers and cargo through airless tubes at the speed of sound. In a loop, of course. Although the idea of reducing drag by creating a vacuum in a tunnel stretches back two hundred years, the scale and detail of Musk’s vision captured the imagination. Travel times between cities hours apart reduced to minutes. Pesky disruptions like storms and crashes nullified. Energy efficiency increased. Maybe even one day a Hyperloop on Mars.
But Musk’s a busy man. With numerous other concerns like Tesla and SpaceX, he didn’t have the time. So, he published his research, open sourcing the concept and passing the baton to companies like Shervin’s Hyperloop One.
Leading to a 500m concrete tube in the desert. And the XP-1.
The XP-1 is Hyperloop One’s new passenger pod. The first test went smoothly, no doubt due to the magnetic levitation system specially built for it.
Pumping out more than 3,000 horsepower, the electric propulsion system accelerated the pod for 300m before the brakes took over. All systems tested well: the highly efficient motor, the advanced controls, the power electronics, the custom mag-lev and guidance, the pod suspension and vacuum system.
Above all, this was a debut for the pod. The XP-1 has an outer layer, or aero shell, constructed from carbon fiber panels that are lightweight and stronger than steel. A levitating chassis constructed from structural aluminum houses the propulsion system along with magnets for levitation and guidance. Similar in design to a Formula 1 car, it’s built to be feather-light yet robust, just like the aero shell.
The test was a coup for Hyperloop One’s relatively small team of 300, who managed to build a fully functional, full-scale test track and pod within just 10 months. And use it. Twice. For this test was Phase 2.
Phase 1 occurred on March 12th earlier in the year. Although the numbers weren’t quite as impressive – 111km/h for 96m at 891hp – in many ways the first test was equally significant. Inventing “our own sky in a tube,” as Shervin puts it, Phase 1 proved that all the systems could work as a single integrated unit in a vacuum.
In particular, the motor proved effective. Resilient and efficient, the XP-1’s propulsion system succeeded where other electrical devices failed in operating under near-vacuum conditions. Crucially, the team has also come up with a way to mass-produce it.
“We’ve proven that our technology works, and we’re now ready to enter into discussions with partners, customers and governments around the world about the full commercialization of our Hyperloop technology,” says Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd.
This is where the Hyperloop dream could hit the brick wall of reality; the problems in constructing a Hyperloop system are myriad.
Clearly the potential benefits of the system are huge. Imagine a tunnel from Los Angeles to San Francisco, or Perth to Sydney, or even China to America, moving freight in a fraction of the time at a fraction of the environmental cost. No more polluting aircraft or container ships. Traffic reduced on major highways. Goods and services, such as life-saving medicine, delivered across the world in hours rather than days.
But tunnels are tough to build and tunnels of significant length, even tougher. The longest tunnel in the world, the Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland, is 57km. That won’t get you to China. Elon Musk has set up a tunneling operation, wittily entitled ‘the Boring Company', to look into the matter. He claims to have received verbal agreement from the US government to build an underground Hyperloop between New York and Washington. Whether or not that becomes official remains to be seen.
Then there’s the little matter of passenger safety. At over 1000km/h, even a gentle curve subjects the human body to enough lateral G-force to induce nausea. That means the path of the Hyperloop would have to be dead straight, and that’s an engineering challenge, to say the least.
Building the Hyperloop infrastructure would obviously require a massive amount of time and money, not to mention goodwill. The challenges in negotiating with national and local governments to undertake such huge, environmentally impactful projects have yet to be overcome.