Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Hyperloop: A Successful 21st Century Transportation Mode, Or Not?

Two stories appeared this year about a potentially revolutionary travel method that could shake up American employment.  Their titles were sort of out of order, with “Hyperloop is edging closer to reality” by Daniel Cooper coming out on March 8th, and Will Nicol’s “What is the Hyperloop?  Here’s everything you need to know” released October 6th. 

Hyperloop, proposed by Tesla and SpaceX leader Elon Musk and being tested and developed by Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), is in effect a pneumatic tube designed to carry people and cargo.  It involves “a low pressure environment, surrounding the [passenger and freight-carrying] pod with a cushion of air that permits the pod to move safely at such high speeds, like a puck gliding over an air hockey table.”  Magnetic accelerators, fascinatingly using the rare-earth metal neodymium, provide impetus, and solar panels deliver power.  Travel speeds could exceed 700 miles per hour, and, on half-mile test tracks, have already reached 240.  Progress has been real if preliminary, with HTT already obtaining tens of millions of dollars and making a prototype passenger pod, Quintero One, available in October.  The company has established partnerships with Aecom, a business “involved in many high profile engineering projects,” and Oerlikon, “a leader in vacuum technology since the dawn of the 20th century.” 

As is clear to all, despite a claim by HTT chairman Bibop Gresta that a Hyperloop run from Los Angeles to San Francisco “will be fully optimized and ready for passengers in 2019,” the system may never materialize.  Yet it could.  What points are for and against it?

On the good side, with lower costs and easier implementation, Hyperloop may have bullet trains completely covered.  Its speeds are potentially much higher, and Musk’s $6 billion estimate for making the California run above operational is dwarfed by the $68 billion expected for only the first phase of that state’s under-construction high-speed rail network.  It has real potential to take less time, considering that dealing with airports, than flying for up to 1,000 miles.  It could eventually be built deeper into the earth, cutting distances to places on other parts of the planet and making the “core-tubes,” a fanciful 30th-century invention written about 50 years ago, a reality.

There are also several real problems.  As with other large infrastructure projects, Hyperloop construction will probably run way over budget, making its final LA-SF cost closer to that $68 billion than Musk would like to admit.  As with railroads Its structure is inflexible, and does not lend itself to other uses as vehicles and airplanes offer with theirs.  I am skeptical that solar panels can provide most or all the system’s power needs, as HTT executives have implied.  That company may have unnecessarily hurt perceptions of its seriousness by naming its pod construction material “vibranium,” an already-used name as familiar to many Marvel comic book readers as “kryptonite” was to DC fans.  The Quintero One photos also, fair or not, left me thinking their capacity was small.

Overall, can we predict whether Hyperloop will be by 2050 a common transportation choice, or only another Buck Rogers idea from the past?  It seems clear that it would work, but that is not the issue.  Why did commercial supersonic air travel fail?  Why did pneumatic technology, commonly used for mail in mid-century, go nowhere for decades after that?  Why are rail connections from airports to city centers so rare in the United States?  Until we can easily answer transportation-system questions like these, we will have no idea whether this, one more of Elon Musk’s visionary ideas, will turn out like CD’s to bullet-train’s cassettes, or the other way around.  In the meantime, let’s take Hyperloop, and the jobs it could create and eliminate, seriously but cautiously.

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