Does the technology behind the much-vaunted new transport system Hyperloop really stand up to scrutiny?
Hyperloop’s technology in question
Anything that Elon Musk says is taken very seriously given his track record in defying sceptics who thought he would never build a sporty electric car or a reusable rocket. So when he floated the idea of the Hyperloop, a high speed transport system in a vacuum tube, various companies leapt into action.
In Davos this week, a company called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies promised that it would be announcing its first commercial track this year. But the project which seems to have got furthest is Virgin Hyperloop One, which has built a 500m test track in Nevada.
On Tech Tent we hear from Virgin Hyperloop’s Anita Sengupta who tells us that everything is on track for the first commercial operation in 2021 – and from Gareth Dennis, a railway engineer.
“The fundamental laws of physics are the same for Hyperloop as for high-speed rail,” says Mr Dennis, a design engineer working for the Arcadis consultancy.
He explains that the faster a train goes, the shallower any curve in the track has to be.
“For high-speed rail, the curves have to be 10km long, and that’s only at 200mph to 250mph. Hyperloop’s going to be hurtling along at 700mph so the track will almost have to be dead straight.”
He believes that means that in countries with plenty of built-up areas this will mean putting the Hyperloop in tunnels, a prohibitively expensive business. He also has concerns about the process of switching pods between different tunnels as they approach a station.
But his biggest doubt is about the capacity of any Hyperloop line in comparison with something like the UK’s HS2 high-speed rail project: “They are going to have to have as many as 400 pods departing every hour, which requires a huge amount of infrastructure.
“I just don’t think that is going to be economically or environmentally viable in the near future.”
Hyperloop’s backers say the engineering challenges are different from those on high-speed rail and cannot be compared.
They believe that big ideas need bold thinkers – but finding governments and investors with the courage to push the button on this kind of project could prove the ultimate challenge.