During the Consumer Electronics Show last week, executives from Hyperloop One told the press they were planning to become “the broadband of transportation.” That’s quite a bold statement. What’s behind it? Last May, the company issued a call for proposed designs and locations. 2,600 teams of engineers and urban planners responded.
Last week, the company narrowed the field to just 35 semi-finalist. Those groups will make a final presentation this spring at three locations around the world — February 28 in New Delhi, April 6 in Washington, D.C., and April 27 in London. After that, the judges will select about 6 finalists who will then conduct feasibility studies to determine whether their proposal is sound from an economics and engineering standpoint. One of the proposals is for a link between Moscow and Beijing.
Broadband for transportation
“Just think of Hyperloop as broadband for transportation,” says Rob Lloyd, CEO for Hyperloop One. “If you think of it as broadband for transportation, you suddenly unlock a massive amount of change, and new applications — new thinking.”
“There doesn’t have to be one winner at each [showcase]; we actually want to be able to go forward with more than one,” says Nick Earle, who oversees global field operations for Hyperloop One. “There could well be multiple winners going forward. Right now, we’re keeping our options open.”
Government leaders will also be invited to the three regional showcases. Earle says feedback from government will help determine if Hyperloop One selects a region. It is hoping representatives from the incoming Trump administration will be on hand. “Our instincts are that the work that we’re doing is going to be extremely well received when the people get into place,” Lloyd says. “I think we’re going to be a very, very important part of the next three or four years in terms of the potential infrastructure that U.S. looks at.”
Lloyd makes it clear that Hyperloop One is about more than feasibility studies. “We’re not in the business of doing studies. We’re in the business of looking for hyperloops that can be built,” he says. “We want to have three routes in production in the next five years,” he says later.
Earle foresees a day when regional Hyperloop systems interconnect for transcontinental transportation. He thinks the company’s greatest impact will not be on people but on the movement of goods. “It’s Amazon Prime on steroids,” he says. “You don’t have to use a fleet of airplanes, you don’t have to use warehouses outside of cities to store goods, because you have to truck them in to meet that one hour deadline that’s in the contract for Amazon Prime.”
Autonomous cars, too
“Autonomous cars will actually be able to go inside the Hyperloop.” Earle maintains. “You actually can do door-to-door like never before.” The autonomous car idea was introduced when Hyperloop One announced its partnership with Dubais Road and Transport Authority to see if a Hyperloop could be built in the Middle Eastern region.
If so, the system would be the ultimate marriage of two Elon Musk ideas. Musk conceived of the Hyperloop while sitting in Los Angeles traffic one day and thinking there had to be a better way. Musk thinks big when it comes to moving people from place to place. Just last month, he had yet another brainstorm — boring tunnels under urban areas to speed the flow of traffic.
A “Kitty Hawk” moment
This spring, Hyperloop One will conduct a full scale test of its system at its North Las Vegas testing facility. “It’s one thing for us to talk about building it, it’s something different for you to actually go build it,” Josh Giegel, president of engineering for Hyperloop One, says. The test will be conducted publicly.
“For us, taking this concept and actually building it, and testing it, and showing people — allowing them to see it, to touch it, to smell it if they want — is really, really important,” Giegel explains. “We’ve felt that way for a long time, that it’s one thing for us to talk about building it; it’s something different for you to actually go build it.
The company acknowledges its debt to the original thinking of Elon Musk. “I think he’ll always have a big part of it,” Geigel says. “We’ll forever be indebted to him for giving us kind of the idea, but we definitely changed the technology quite a bit from the original white paper. It’s more than just a train, or a pod in a tube. We’re taking it to a level of connectivity and really being the high-speed backbone of the future transportation network.”
Moving goods to market is the life blood of commerce. Originally, ox carts were the preferred method, then canals and rivers rose to prominence. After that, railroads came into being, followed by the interstate highway system with its battalions of diesel powered tractor trailers. As globalization became the modus operandi of business, mammoth container ships became the new beasts of burden.
Is it science fiction?
Will the Hyperloop ever be more than science fiction? In essence, it is little more than a horizontal elevator but it depends upon giant tubes 11 feet in diameter that contain a partial vacuum like the devices banks use at their drive up windows. The tubes will need to maintain their alignment with millimeter precision over long distances in order to function properly. The challenges are enormous and technologically daunting.
If Hyperloop One has a successful test in the Nevada desert this spring, we might actually see a system of Hyperloops whisking goods and people from place to place one day. But for the moment, it is still the stuff of fantasy — just like the nuclear submarines and rockets to the moon envisioned by Jules Verne long ago.
Source: Inverse Image credit: Hyperloop One