The promise of hyperloop ranks near the top of the spectacular index: a network of tubes that will shoot people and their things from city to city at near supersonic speeds. But even if you never clamber into a levitating pod, the work being done now to make hyperloop a reality could make your future journeys—whether by plane, train, or automobile—faster, comfier, and cooler.
The hyperloop industry—if you can call a handful of VC-backed outfits an industry—got going in 2013, after Elon Musk published a white paper on his idea of tubular travel and said he was too busy to work on it. (The Tesla, SpaceX, and Boring Company CEO changed his mind this year, and is now working on his own system.)
The essentials are simple: A bus-sized levitating pod would be propelled down a nearly airless tube. Zooming along at hundreds of miles an hour thanks to the lack of friction and air resistance, it could get riders from San Francisco to Los Angeles in half an hour. And while the physics are sound, building and operating a functioning hyperloop is a harrowing task.
Anyone who nails down the engineering then has to take on tasks like building infrastructure on a massive scale, which means wrangling with regulators and local politics. If they can do that, they then get to figure out how to make money in a market dominated by seasoned, streamlined competitors like airlines.
So, yeah, don’t count on hopping into one of those tubes anytime soon. The good news is that, even if hyperloop never takes over, the engineering work going on now could produce tools and techniques to improve existing industries. Much like NASA’s Apollo missions led to cordless drills, firefighting equipment, and supercomputers, hyperloop has the potential to spur significant transportation innovation if research continues at its current pace. In fact, that crossover has already begun.