Touring Hyperloop One’s ever-evolving test site

Virgin Hyperloop One, a company that’s developing a new way of moving people around the world, has precedent when it comes to missing deadlines. The company pledged to test a fully working Hyperloop by the end of 2016, but its first test didn’t take place until Aug. 2017. The future doesn’t conform to timetables, and we can forgive plenty, but it’s still with trepidation that the company sets its next ambitious goal. It intends to have a full-size, passenger-ready Hyperloop in operation by 2021. After touring the transport company’s DevLoop site in Clark County, Nevada, it’s clear the challenges now aren’t technical but political.

For the first time since May 2016, the site was opened up to a handful of journalists this week during CES. Hyperloop One was a vastly different company. Back then, it was led by original co-founders Brogan BamBrogan and Shervin Pishevar — the former quit a few months after an alleged falling out with Pishevar’s brother. The latter would depart at the tail end of 2017, forced out after becoming embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal. In their place, Richard Branson has stepped in as chairperson, rebranding the company as Virgin Hyperloop One.

Another new face is Dr. Anita Sengupta, who has joined the company as the head of its systems engineering division. Sengupta is a veteran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the figure behind the Curiosity rover’s supersonic parachute that enabled it to land on Mars. Sengupta’s knowledge of theoretical physics will be helpful when it comes to ensuring that the Hyperloop can function safely and reliably. After all, as she says, you don’t get to practice landing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment on another planet.

Her job has been made easier by the fact that DevLoop has now played host to more than 200 test runs of increasing speed and complexity. In November, the company demonstrated that its test pod could reach speeds of up to 240 miles per hour in just a 500-meter long tube. It took a distance of 300 meters to hit that speed, with the following 200 being used for deceleration, fact fans. And even though the tubes have been welded in place, the company continues to make significant tweaks to the system.

There was always a plan to include airlocks in the final design, but engineers were prompted to retrofit one onto DevLoop after a visit to SpaceX’s own test Hyperloop. They noticed how very long it took for the tube to depressurize before each run and started building their own airlock shortly afterward. Now a large white box roughly 10 feet tall sits just after the entrance of the tube, which houses a heavy airlock plate that keeps the vacuum separate from the entryway.

Things organized neatly. Daniel Cooper
The airlocks not only make tests faster but also make the Hyperloop much more energy efficient, since you don’t need as much power to maintain the vacuum. Well, it’s not a vacuum as much as a very low-pressure environment that is kept at between 10 and 100 Pascal during operation. For comparison, the atmosphere most of us experience is around 100,000 Pascal, while the Hyperloop tube is operating at the equivalent of 200,000 feet above sea level.

Now that the physics problems have been dealt with, the company is also doing its best to walk back from some of its more ambitious plans. There will now be a single, unified pod design for both people and cargo and potentially only one or two passenger-pod designs therein. The concept of having self-driving units take you from your Hyperloop to your home has now been scrapped. Instead, its system will enlist the services of taxi, ride-sharing and other last-mile providers to schedule rides in time with your departure and arrival.

The company won’t be drawn on where the first loop will be built but wants to make meaningful progress on the deal in the first half of the year. But if Hyperloop One believes that 2021 is a feasible deadline, then we’ll be holding it to its claims and watching the next three years with great interest.

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Woman struck and killed by Brightline train during preview run

A woman was struck and killed by a Brightline train in Boynton Beach during an introductory run, according to the Boynton Beach Police Department.

The woman was identified Saturday as Melissa Lavell, 31, of Boynton Beach. Lavell was crossing the tracks after the guard rails were in the down position, in an attempt to make it across the tracks before the train approached, according to a post on the Boynton Beach police department’s Facebook page.

Friday’s accident was the third fatality for Brightline, which launched introductory passenger rail service Saturday morning. A woman was struck in July in Boca Raton in a case that was investigated as a suicide, and another woman was hit on the tracks in Deerfield Beach in November.

The railroad has been testing its trains for several months.

Brightline described the most recent fatality as a “tragic” incident.

“Brightline’s team is cooperating with local authorities,” the railroad said in a written statement. “This is a tragic incident, and our thoughts and prayers are with those affected. We continue to stress safety and the adherence to the rules and laws in place around active railroads.”

Brightline’s first ride between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale took off on time at 8 a.m. Saturday morning.

Manhattan Gridlock: Plan to Relieve It & Impact On Transit Debt

Bumper-to bumper, horn-honking traffic through Manhattan streets is about as New York as bagels and Broadway. A plan to ease that problem is tapping into another mainstay of city life: high driving tolls.

The idea, called “congestion pricing,” involves using electronic tolling technology to charge fees to vehicles entering the most heavily trafficked parts of town during certain hours.

Some big cities already do it, including Singapore, Stockholm and London, where it can cost more than $15 to drive into the city center during peak periods.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed it for New York a decade ago and got a firm rejection from lawmakers who said drivers headed into Manhattan already get slammed enough by bridge and highway tolls and high parking fees.

But with the city’s subway system deteriorating, and politicians looking for ways to pay for a fix, the concept has gotten new life.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who said last summer that “congestion pricing” is an idea whose time has come, could unveil a plan to implement a system as early as next week. A spokesman for the governor said a committee, called FixNY, is finalizing recommendations.

Alex Matthiessen, director of the MoveNY campaign — the most vocal advocate for congestion pricing — says New York would become the first city in the United States to charge drivers under such a system, but said others like San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles are paying close attention.

“We have a full-blown crisis,” Matthiessen said. “Our subway system is severely underfunded; it is quite unreliable, there are delays and overcrowding and the situation is potentially dangerous. No other idea has the twin benefit of also tackling a very severe traffic problem.”

There are still plenty of roadblocks.

Democratic New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he likes the idea of getting cars off the street but isn’t convinced high tolls is the way to do it.

“I think there are serious fairness issues when it comes to congestion pricing,” he said at a recent news conference, citing the financial burden on drivers who can’t afford tolls as easily as the many millionaires who call Manhattan home. De Blasio has said he prefers dealing with the subway’s financial problems by imposing higher income taxes on the rich.

Key details, like how much it might cost, or where, exactly, drivers might get hit with the tolls have yet to be unveiled. Bloomberg’s plan would have charged $8 to drive south of 60th Street, or roughly the southern end of Central Park.

Adam Glassman, a Lynbrook, Long Island-based attorney, spoke in midtown Manhattan before getting into his car to go home.

“It is impossible to get into the city,” said Glassman, who is familiar with Bloomberg’s proposed plan years ago. He commutes into Manhattan twice a week.

He’s in favor of possible tolls. “I’d be willing to suck it up.”

Although no specific congestion pricing plan has been formally announced, many agree that any system would be likely to create surcharges for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. That’s OK with Uber, which is behind a public relations campaign backing congestion pricing.

“Users of Manhattan’s congested roads should bear part of the cost of helping to reduce congestion and improve our public transit system,” said Uber spokeswoman Alix Anfang. “Everyone should pay their fair share to keep New York City moving forward.”

Brooklyn state Assemblyman William Colton, a Democrat, said any proposals that would create tolls across bridges into Manhattan that are currently free, or a system that would ping drivers in areas like Times Square south through Greenwich Village and into the Wall Street business district, would be seen as an unfair tax by his constituents.

“This is going to have a negative effect on working people, small business people and seniors who have medical appointments in Manhattan,” Colton said. “This is going to be a big problem. I don’t know the details, but I’m very leery.”

Commuter Joe Murphy said he would be “absolutely opposed to it.”

He lives in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and already pays for the George Washington Bridge, where tolls range from $10.50 to $15 a car, plus a midtown Manhattan parking garage. His half-hour, pre-rush hour commute is the fastest and easiest option for him; using public transportation would triple his commuting time.

“Just to get to work, the cost of parking and tolls and everything is just astronomical,” he said.