All Your Questions About the Hyperloop, Answered

Popular Mechanics

It’s been four years since Elon Musk shared his vision for transcending ships, trains, cars, and planes. Will the hyperloop ever be more than a vision?

In August 2013, disappointed by the high-speed-rail system being built through the center of California, Elon Musk released a white paper called Hyperloop Alpha, describing a system of pod-cars shooting through vacuum tubes at nearly 800 mph. The paper ended with a plea for “the community” to work on an “open source transportation concept”—he was too busy, he said, to work on it himself. Here are the key questions that have arisen since.

Has anyone taken up Musk’s challenge to develop hyperloop technologies?

Yes—initially, two main companies, one called Hyperloop Technologies and another called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT). The former, now called Hyperloop One (H1), boasts a flashy venture-capitalist cofounder (Richard Branson, Virgin Airlines) and more than $150 million in funding. The latter has taken “open source” to heart and is more like a very well-organized consortium of engineers from around the world.

Was Hyperloop One cofounded by a guy legally named Brogan BamBrogan?

Yes. Although BamBrogan left and earlier this year formed his own company, Arrivo, one of a handful of other small startups working on the hyperloop. And a variety of academic teams are working on pod-car prototypes, spurred by a series of competitions hosted by Musk at SpaceX HQ.

So Musk isn’t totally leaving this up to “the community”?

No. SpaceX built a three-quarter-mile-long track, and has hosted two competitions (a third is scheduled for summer 2018), rewarding things like design, safety, and speed. At the second competition, the winning team hit 201 mph.

Are there other test tracks?

A Dutch company born from Musk’s first competition built a 30-meter-long test track in Europe. While the SpaceX track is only six feet in diameter, its track is full-size—it can handle tests with cars big enough to carry passengers. And H1 has the full-size DevLoop, a 500-meter test track outside Las Vegas. It hit 192 mph in a test in July.

It sounds like the technology is coming along.

It is. A team from NASA examined the feasibility of the hyperloop, purely from a technological standpoint, and found it doable. Everyone agrees the technology itself isn’t the challenge.

Then what’s the challenge?

There are two: cost and land acquisition. Musk’s original paper said hyperloop would be cheaper than existing high-speed-transit options, but at this point, with the technology still in development, there’s no consensus on the validity of his estimates. There is consensus on the second challenge: It’s incredibly difficult to acquire land on this scale in the U.S. For this reason, many companies are exploring projects in other countries. One of the more promising startups, TransPod, is based in Canada; H1 has a deal with the government of Dubai; and HTT with South Korea. It’s entirely possible we’ll see a working hyperloop abroad before we get one in the U.S.

At least we’ve got Musk. It’s too bad he’s staying so hands-off.

About that. In July, Musk tweeted he’d gotten “verbal govt approval” to build a hyperloop underneath the Atlantic seaboard with the help of his tunneling outfit, The Boring Company.

Why did he get back in?
The most interesting of many possible reasons: Creating a near-vacuum inside a tube is challenging and costly in Earth’s atmosphere, but on Mars atmosphere is negligible. The hyperloop could be the public transit system of Musk’s Red Planet colony.

In other words, we might see a working hyperloop on Mars before the U.S.?

Possible, but unlikely: SpaceX is currently planning its first, unmanned mission to Mars in 2020—probably a long shot—and that’s also about when most hyperloop startups are targeting for their first operable line.


Living on Mars? Who Will Collect the Garbage?

Malcolm Bates wonders if it wouldn’t it be better for us to look after the planet we already have before we contemplate moving to Mars?

To be honest, I wasn’t really listening to my car radio at the time. After all, the news over recent weeks had been a depressing cocktail of tensions over North Korea, who the latest White House staffer is to have been fired (as if the rest of us really care!) and more recently, the tragic aftermath of both man-made (Like the Grenfell Tower fire in London, England) and natural disasters (From mudslides in South America, floods in Texas and hurricanes in th Caribean) that have befallen our Planet.

So was an item suggesting that in the future, mankind should up sticks and move to another planet designed to lift our spirits? It’s a well-trodden theme of science fiction of course, but from what I gather, this item was serious. It suggested Mars was the best option and…

“Hang on a minute” I shouted out loud while stuck in busy traffic. “Wouldn’t it be better if we looked after the planet we already have?”

Clearly, the worried-looking truck driver next to me couldn’t answer that question. But then seemingly, nor can anyone else in our political elite. For example, we cant even seem to agree on a common system to collect and utilise foodwaste – even though half the planet doesn’t get enough of it (food, that is), while the other half wastes it in Industrial portions.

Yet taking foodwaste – and moisture – out of the general waste stream is probably the most useful thing we can do in our industry. But ask three professionals for their idea of ‘Best Practice’ and, chances are, you’ll get four answers.

Come on – how hard can it be?

Here’s another waste-related issue that neither our politicians are seemingly still unable to solve. It’s now normal for motorists and truck drivers mostly, but children and teenagers as well, to eat and drink on the move.

The resulting debris gets thrown by the side of the road without thinking of what it costs to clear up. The answer? ‘Education’ has clearly failed. The threat of greater fines? Unlikely because detection is ineffective. So can ‘technology’ help here?

Instead of relying on manual labour, could a new breed of vacuum machine designed to collect roadside litter and fly-tipped material from verges help? And why cant someone design a truly effective foodwaste collection ‘system’ including the household bins? Sealed ‘vacuum pack’ modules perhaps?

My point? The waste industry is hardly rocket science is it? But call me old fashioned – I wouldn’t want to ride to another planet on a spacecraft built by a civilisation who couldn’t even master the problems of roadside debris or foodwaste here on earth, first. Would you?