With $100 million in financing raised, a successfully tested prototype and a full slate of prominent partnerships, the futuristic Hyperloop may soon become the newest mode of modern transport and travel.
Conceived by entrepreneur and visionary Elon Musk, the Hyperloop promises to create a “fifth mode” of transportation with a technology utilizing a “low pressure tube with capsules that are transported at both low and high speeds throughout the length of the tube [and which are] supported on a cushion of air, featuring pressurized air and aerodynamic lift,” in the words of the founder himself (1). In layman’s terms, this translates into transporting people and cargo in near-vacuum tubes at a velocity approaching the speed of sound (2). The most prominent company developing the technology for commercial use, Hyperloop One, aims to revolutionize transportation in the same way the Internet did communication (1).
Though a full-sized, functional Hyperloop has yet to be built, Hyperloop One founder Brogan BamBrogan revealed in May that the project is already technologically feasible, but financially impractical (1). As of now, Hyperloop One is working to cut costs by boosting the efficiency of each component of the system so that it can deliver at an “absolutely transformative” price, according to BamBrogan (1).
In May, Hyperloop One held its first live test of the Hyperloop at a site in Nevada (3). The early prototype propulsion system proved successful, accelerating a sled to 116 mph in 1.1 seconds (4). However, significant technological challenges remain to overcome in order to make the technology a viable, mainstream transportation option. According to BamBrogan, these should be resolved in the near future; he announced that the company would be conducting full-scale, full-system tests as soon as Q4 of this year (1).
To help accelerate the development process, Musk’s aerospace and transport company, SpaceX has announced an open competition to “design and build the best Hyperloop pod,” constructing a test track in California to facilitate the process (5). While not affiliated with Hyperloop One or any other company trying to develop and build the system, SpaceX promises that “the knowledge gained here will continue to be open-sourced” so that a commercial Hyperloop can be built as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, the business side looks equally if not more promising for Hyperloop One. The company announced in May that it had raised $80 million in the B round of funding, much of which came from prominent investors like French national rail company SNCF, GE Ventures, Western Technology Investment and Fast Digital (2). In addition, Hyperloop One unveiled an array of prominent transportation and engineering partners, including AECOM, KPMG, Amberg Group, Deutsche Bahn and Systra (2). While Hyperloop One is not the only company currently developing the Hyperloop technology for commercial use (Los Angeles-based startup Hyperloop Transportation Technologies consists of around 200 volunteers working on business, routing, design and engineering), the widespread attention and support it enjoys from a variety of highly-esteemed investors and firms speaks to the credibility of the company (2). Moreover, the high-profile clientele suggests a general confidence in the feasibility of the Hyperloop among the tech and investment communities; experts are taking the Hyperloop very seriously, even if the general public is not yet familiar with the concept.
On a global level, Hyperloop One also has an impressive array of potential partners interested in appropriating the transport system. Arup, a British consultancy, is exploring the possibility of building an underground Hyperloop system between London and Birmingham; chairman Gregory Hodkinson expressed his confidence in a statement that “Hyperloop has the potential to solve many of today’s most complex long-distance transport issues (4).” Likewise, FS Links AB is conducting a feasibility study on a possible connection between Sweden and Finland via Hyperloop (2). Other such studies are currently underway in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Dubai and the Port of Los Angeles (6).
Most recently, the city of Moscow signed a deal with Hyperloop One in June to bring the technology to the Russian city (6). Backed by Summa Group, the transport, engineering and oil conglomerate owned by Russian billionaire oligarch Ziyavudin Magomedov (who has invested in Hyperloop One in the past), the agreement aims toward the movement not only of people but also of goods (6). Magomedov intends to eventually integrate the Hyperloop into Chinese connectivity initiative “One Belt, One Road,” a broad-reaching plan to boost trade across the Eurasian continent (7). One main tenant of the program aims at improving transport infrastructure; the Hyperloop would greatly facilitate trade by shuttling goods across the continent at record speeds.
The specifics of the Hyperloop’s environmental impact are difficult to gauge at this stage given that the design remains in its prototype stage. However, it is safe to predict that the Hyperloop will likely minimize environmental impact compared to other forms of transportation. Describing a potential Hyperloop design connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco in his original 2013 proposal, Musk claimed that the system could “generate far in excess of the energy needed to operate (8).” While this is very feasible for a California Hyperloop, systems located underground or in in regions with less sunlight would require alternate energy sources. Ideally, the energy could still come from renewables, but even running on conventional fuels or batteries, the Hyperloop remains relatively environmentally friendly. According to Musk’s calculations, it would require far less energy per seat when compared to alternatives like high-speed trains or airplanes (8).
In addition, the raised design of the Hyperloop minimizes environmental disruption along the transport route. With the tube elevated around 20 feet above the earth’s surface, the system would only require concrete pillars for support, making it less invasive than roads or train tracks, though more so than air travel (9).
If the finished design of the Hyperloop lives up to its ambitious claims of cost and time efficiency and eco-friendliness, the world may soon have an efficient new mode of transportation that takes global connectivity to a new level. It is difficult to predict, however, whether the Hyperloop will remain a futuristic fringe technology or gradually enter into the mainstream like the train and the airplane before it. Even if all remaining engineering issues are soon resolved, potential users must come to terms with the idea of traveling near the speed of sound in a small, sealed tube. However, history shows that convenience soon overcomes such misgivings; the train and airplane both attest to this point. As matters stand today, there is no reason why the Hyperloop will not soon become a viable, and even favored mode of travel.
(1) Terdiman, D (2016). Here Comes Hyperloop One: Startup Raises $80 Million. Available at: http://www.fastcompany.com/3059752/here-comes-the-hyperloop-startup-raises-80-million (Accessed 3 June 2016).
(2) Tilley, A (2016). Hyperloop One Announces Key Partnerships, $80 Million Investment As it Prepares First Public Test. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/aarontilley/2016/05/11/hyperloop-one/#2539eb93416e (Accessed: 3 June 2016).
(3) Fallon, D (2016). Watch the First Real-World Test of Hyperloop Technology. Available at: http://digg.com/2016/hyperloop-one-test-video-elon-musk (Accessed: 3 June 2016).
(4) Woolf, N (2016). Hyperloop One tests high-speed transport propulsion system. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/may/11/hyperloop-supersonic-train-test-propulsion-system (Accessed: 3 June 2016).
(5) SpaceX (2016). The Official SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition. Available at: http://www.spacex.com/hyperloop (Accessed: 3 June 2016).
(6) Korosec, K (2016). Russian Oligarch is Backing Hyperloop One’s Effort to Reach Moscow. Available at: http://fortune.com/2016/06/21/hyperloop-one-moscow-magomedov/ (Accessed: 3 June 2016).
(7) Dollar, D (2015). China’s rise as regional and global power: The AIIB and the ‘one belt, one road.’ Available at: http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2015/07/china-regional-global-power-dollar (Accessed: 3 June 2016).
(8) Musk, E (2013). Hyperloop Alpha. Available at: https://www.teslamotors.com/sites/default/files/blog_images/hyperloop-alpha.pdf (Accessed: 3 June 2016).
(9) Hunt, T (2015). Will Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Live Up to the Hype? Available at: http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/will-hyperloop-live-up-to-the-hype (Accessed: 3 June 2016).
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