What if you could travel from New York to Washington DC in less than 30 minutes?
What if all the large semi-trucks clogging city highway networks at rush hour were underground, reducing the amount of congestion and getting people to where they want to be faster than ever before?
What if you could visit your friends across the country in the same day, rather than transferring through two different airports and spending hours in a security checkpoint?
That’s the vision that Elon Musk has dreamed up with his Hyperloop technologies, an outside-the-box solution to solving transportation issues being faced by the biggest cities in the world.
Elon’s previous visions - for cheaper space travel and cleaner personal vehicles - are both moving along swimmingly. The Tesla Model 3 is planned to be released to a wide amount of customers by the end of the year, and Space X is looking to launch it 44th flight within the next two months. Both of these visions have been successful, and there’s little reason to doubt that the next ones will be any less successful.
What is the Hyperloop?
By digging hundreds of miles of tunnels under some of the largest cities in the US, focused primarily in the Los Angeles/San Francisco area and the Northeast US, the Hyperloop system looks to reduce the amount of cars traveling on major highways.
America’s highway network is becoming extremely costly to maintain, and the age of the network means that they either have to be torn down and completely rebuilt, or suffer from constant maintenance. Cities are enticed by Hyperloop’s innovative way to reduce usage of highways, particularly those that travel through major cities.
The tunnel will be held at a low-pressure, which reduces the amount of air that pushes back against the vehicles traveling through the network. Individual air compressors on the vehicles will suspend them in air, creating little friction and therefore little resistance to the vehicles.
The combination of low air resistance and no friction between the vehicles and the tunnel would allow the vehicles to travel at really high speeds, therefore shortening the length of a trip between large cities.
If the Hyperloop tube were placed above ground, it would be possible to cover it in solar panels, and offset the entire energy consumption of the network. Another possible solution would be to use an induction motor to propel the vehicles along the tube. This kind of motor is the same motor that is used within the Tesla Model S, and would move the pods through the tube at speeds of around 1000 km/h, or 615 mph.
Where is the Hyperloop System looking to Build?
There are currently 35 locations under consideration for Hyperloop to be built, with around 1/3 located within the US, and between major cities within the same state.
This includes links between Seattle and Portland, Kansas City and St. Louis, Los Angeles and San Diego, and Miami and Orlando. These cities all have problems with increasing traffic and congestion, and mayors have been pretty vocal about attracting Hyperloop to build the first project in their cities.
The most likely location for the first Hyperloop system is in Dubai, where there is plenty of open space, high solar potential, and high demand to travel between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
What are the Barriers Holding Back the Development of the Hyperloop Network?
One of the biggest challenges holding back the advancement of this project is the technological barrier of digging tunnel. As an example of the challenge, digging a tunnel between New York and Washington DC would take 100 years at the current rate. Not a lot of people have that kind of patience.
However, Elon has been able to build a rocket to take astronaut to outer space, and return the rocket to Earth to be reused again. If there’s someone who has the best chance to develop a solution to the problem, it is Musk who has the experience with dealing with challenging situations.
Musk is currently digging a pilot tunnel to get an understanding of the basic technology that exists today, and understand the current state of the technology. Current tunnel building involves removing dirt, then reinforcing the tunnel in a separate process.
If the Hyperloop team could find a way to build retaining walls at the same time as digging under a large city, this could help save billions in the project. Boring machines are only able to dig about 5 to 6 feet at a time before they must be stopped and a retaining wall is to be built.
One thing that is always a challenge with any Elon Musk project is the lack of support that he gets for his projects from leaders of cities and the Federal government. Every project he has been involved with has been challenged as “overly ambitious”. This project is no different.
Elon challenges convention with a motto that others simply aren’t ambitious enough.
He would have to get approvals from not only transportation agencies, but also from environmental regulators and land owners who wouldn’t exactly be thrilled with construction noise and vibration underneath their homes.
It is also much more expensive to build underground compared to aboveground. This is why we build bridges instead of tunnels, and parking garages are built taller instead of deeper. Building underground also creates problems with the amount of other stuff that is found underground in many cities, not to mention the amount of undiscovered historical artifacts.
Water pipes, building foundations, broadband internet, sewage pipes and debris from construction sites, can all pose problems that aren’t usually identifiable at before they get trapped in the machine drilling the tunnel. Even if one thing gets stuck in the machine, it could take an extra year or two to get the project running again.
When will the Hyperloop Become Mainstream?
There’s no indication when the first tunnel will be built in the United States, but Hyperloop-One, the company that has made the largest progress in the industry, completed its first successful test in a tube that is 500 meters long, and only travels at 250 mph. The pod that is used is made from exotic materials of carbon fiber and aluminum, which raises the cost even further.
This doesn’t bode well for making the project cheap, accessible, or even faster than other travel options.
However, even with the high cost, and limited track length, Hyperloop-One is targeting the deployment of a system to travel between cities in the Hyperloop system by 2021. And not just one system, but 3 fully operational and capable systems.
This may seem like an optimistic scenario, but in comparison, the first test launch of the Apollo space program happened in 1966, and Lance Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon three years later in 1969. The Hyperloop project faces some of the same issues that affected the Apollo program, and it will cost an enormous amount of money.
Elon Musk has shown the commitment to making the project a reality, and there has already been a proof of concept behind the project thanks to Hyperloop-One.
The technology has the chance to change the way we move around and between cities, and ultimately the way everything moves around the country. Further work is still needed, but with the potential that this project brings to the table, it wouldn’t be surprising to bring this kind of technology to expand to more cities in the future.