USA Today is sort of a “wanna be” major newspaper. But it is in all US hotels (even Donald Trumps)
Contrary to my usual style, I give time to those who may not always agree with my thoughts.
In a white-board world, hyperloop sounds ideal.
Take a sleek pod, place it in a vacuum-sealed tube and let it float frictionless above its rails using tested magnetic levitation, or maglev, technology at speeds up to 800 mph. Picture a puck effortlessly racing across an air hockey table and you have the idea, one that can already been seen in action on Shanghai’s speedy maglev train.
By erasing the vehicle-clogged arteries of our national highway system and those aging miles of transcontinental railroad track, commute times get slashed and fossil fuel gets saved. What’s not to like?
Yet moving this transportation alternative from sci-fi vision to real-world ubiquity involves financial and logistical roadblocks that call into question its wisdom, according to technology and transportation experts.
The issues raised include hyperloop’s cost (a 350-mile run between Los Angeles and San Francisco has been estimated at $6 billion or more), technological demands (tubes would have to be straight and vacuum-tight to keep speeds high), practicality (short hops would not make sense) and comfort (humans might not go for travel that feels like a roller coaster ride lodged in tunnels).
“I sense a bit of hucksterism right now that’s helping companies raise money,” says Ralph Hollis, a research professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University who is an expert on maglev tech.
His concerns range from whether endless links of welded tubes can retain the vacuum integral to maintaining high speeds given the inevitable geological shifts in California’s earthquake country, to the physiological impact on passengers of speeds that approach the supersonic.
“A lot of different things have to go right for this to really work, business, legal, technical,” says Hollis. “Demonstrating that it runs isn’t really enough.”
“That it runs” refers to a recent demo in the Nevada desert, where Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One successfully launched its maglev-enabled sled across a 100-yard track. The company plans to build a five-mile enclosed loop by year’s end. More boldly, last week it announced a Russian partnership to explore a new Silk Road route across Asia.
Hyperloop One has taken the lead in this tube race, raising $90 million and boasting investors such as GE Ventures and SNCF, the French national railway company. A rival concern, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, announced in March that its futuristic pods could appear first in Slovakia, where officials are studying a proposal.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing hyperloop is the poor reception offered to its slower cousin, high-speed rail.
Consider that for its size, the U.S. has only one such run – Amtrack’s Acela Express line along the Northeast Corridor — while smaller England and France each have an example, the Eurostar and TGV respectively.
In 2008, California voters approved $10 billion in funding for an ambitious San Francisco to Los Angeles bullet train akin to Japan’s Shinkansen, but it has yet to make headway. The $68 billion effort, which uses an alternative to maglev technology, was able to gain some initial traction thanks to billions in federal funding, but has been bogged down in lawsuits from aggrieved communities and by cumbersome land acquisition deals.
“Just getting a maglev train here would be great, but the U.S. is a strange place. Most people consider high-speed rail a boondoggle,” said Jim Mathews, spokesman for the National Association of Railroad Passengers .
Mathews, a former Aviation Week editor, says he’s learned not to bet against Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX and Tesla Motors and drew up the concept of hyperloop in a white paper three years ago.
But he’s not the only one doubting appetite for such projects, especially in the U.S.
John Macomber, senior lecturer on infrastructure and urbanization issues at Harvard University, says he remains unclear “why hyperloop would be more valuable than trains or airplanes. I know speed matters, but maybe not that much,”
Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd is unfazed by suggestions that Hyperloop One is a moonshoot or boondoggle, preferring instead to call it simply ahead of its time. It’s focused on developing a proof of concept that can be licensed to investors with the cash and desire to build hyperloop.
As for the high price: Lloyd notes Hyperloop One is keenly focused on generating profits by overhauling the existing freight transportation system. It even has sketched out a proposal that would see cargo ships unload their containers on floating docks outside Long Beach and into waiting hyperloop pods miles off-shore, thus freeing up lucrative shoreline real estate currently taken up by the city’s sprawling port.
If we suddenly did make this hyper-leap to hyperloop, what would it be like riding in a windowless tube at such blistering speeds?
Carnegie Mellon’s Hollis says that his own experiences aboard Shanghai’s maglev train, which can hit 300 mph, “involves a lot of being jostled around due to the steel rails that expand and contract (with weather), leading to something that can be like a bumpy airplane ride.” He adds that the tubes will have to be arrow straight otherwise deceleration forces generated by curves will be transferred to passengers.
The design of Hyperloop One’s systems are for gradual acceleration. In the first 90 seconds of acceleration and the last 90 seconds of deceleration, a passenger would feel G forces similar to those in a Honda Civic merging onto the highway, says Lloyd.
Hollis says that 1G forces — equivalent to a person’s body weight — are acceptable and what one might experience on a roller coaster. “But not everyone likes roller coasters,” he says.