From the moment Space X founder Elon Musk proposed the Hyperloop concept 3 years ago, he set off a global race to make this futuristic mode of transportation a reality.
Today, a global community of engineers and entrepreneurs has emerged to develop Hyperloop systems that would send people and cargo hurtling through pneumatic tubes at speeds far beyond those of typical airliners.
Dirk Ahlborn is CEO at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), the first startup to begin developing the technology.
“It’s something entirely new, something that’s between a train and a plane. Imagine a capsule full of people or freight moving from one point or the other at the speed of sound. We’re ready to build this, and many big cities want to be our partners.”
The Hyperloop concept seems simple. Build long, elevated tubes and remove the air with compressors to create a vacuum. A pod carrying passengers or freight enters the tube and levitates via magnets. The lack of friction makes it theoretically possible to propel the capsule at 1223 km/h, substantially higher than the 925 km/h of an airliner.
This system would cost less than high-speed trains, while offering much faster travel. The ability to go from New York to Chicago in under an hour could change our ideas about where we live and work forever.
Many of the basic concepts were fleshed out by Musk in an August 2013 white paper. He said anyone was free to build on his ideas.
Sam Abuelsamid, transportation analyst for market research firm Navigant, said the pace of development since then has been rapid:
“Whether or not this technology ever becomes commercially or technologically viable, it’s still too early to say. But the things they’ve managed to do have gone much further, much faster, than many of us expected.”
Based in Los Angeles, HTT was founded in 2014 and uses a collaborative research model. The company offered shares of stock to anyone who suggested improvements that were incorporated. So far, 800 collaborators have participated. Ahlborn explained that involving the public was a way to build popular support and convince governments to get involved.
“Normally, things like building transportation infrastructure are done by the government. But governments weren’t going to develop Hyperloop on their own. So we needed this to be more than a company. It needed to be a movement.”
Dealing with New Challenges
Over the past two years, HTT has developed technology to address certain concerns.
For instance, how would passengers react to the gravitational forces of a capsule launched like a bullet fired from a gun? HTT designed a system that uses small electric motors beneath the capsule to accelerate it gradually down a track. After initial acceleration, the magnetic system levitates the capsule, and propels it maximum velocity.
HTT says this same system would facilitate deceleration, whether in a turn or at the end of the journey. During deceleration, the braking system recharges the batteries powering the motors.
The company plans to use “augmented” windows in the capsule to avoid motion sickness. They would display a video of a landscape rushing past. Eye tracking technology would adjust image content and speed. The goal is to prevent the nausea that can result from a physical sensation of motion without external visual references.
HTT has raised $31.8 million and is working on a small operational version in California that it hopes passengers can try in 2018. The company also has signed agreements with Slovakia, the Czech Republic and the United Arab Emirates to conduct Hyperloop feasibility studies. For Ahlborn,
“The collaboration with governments is important for us. Today, it’s not a question anymore of whether we can do this. It’s finding the right locations to start building.”
To that end, HTT recently announced it would build a research and testing center in Toulouse, France with a one-kilometer test track.
The Race is On
But HTT is not alone. Its chief rival, Hyperloop One, plans to open a test track in Nevada. Last year, the company announced a deal with the UAE to build a Hyperloop system that would cover the 150 km between Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 12 minutes. They designed an integrated system featuring autonomous pods that pick passengers up at home, whisk them to a station, slide into the Hyperloop and deliver them to their final destination.Space X has built a 1.6-km track in Hawthorne, California for researchers to test their creations.
January saw the final round of competition to design a Hyperloop pod. The winner, Tim Houter and his team from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands proposed a system that would take passengers from Amsterdam to Paris in 30 minutes. They have created Delft Hyperloop to market their work. Houter explains:
“I think now is really the time the world is looking for a new mode of transportation. There has not been a lot of innovation in the world of transportation in recent decades. If this can be done in a way that’s cheaper and more efficient, then Hyperloop can change the way we think about transportation.”