Hyperloop: A New Mode Of Mass Transportation After A Century


The Virgin Hyperloop had its first passenger test this week. Exciting times! As I watched the video of Virgin Hyperloop’s Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer Josh Giegel and Director of Passenger Experience Sara Luchian carry out the first test ride at the DevLoop site in the Nevada desert, I wondered if this is going to be our future mode of public transportation or will it be consigned to the annals of history as an achievable yet unviable option.

Hyperloop is the first mass transportation system to be tested in over 100 years, the last of course being the aeroplane in the early part of the last century. It was publicly mentioned by Elon Musk in 2012 with the conceptual details published in 2013. Ever the visionary, he and his company SpaceX, basically “open-sourced” it by sharing the details of the technology, for they wanted people to collectively help build the fifth mode of transportation for humanity.

The name Hyperloop was chosen because it travels in a loop at hyper speeds. The wordmark “HYPERLOOP“, applicable to “high-speed transportation of goods in tubes” was issued to SpaceX on 4 April 2017, as per U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The fundamental concept is based on the ability of objects to travel at hypersonic speeds when there is minimal friction. Giant low-pressure tubes, where almost all air has been removed, are constructed either above or below the ground, to create a low friction environment. Then a pod or capsule, containing passengers or for that matter goods, is able to travel within it at high speeds. However, to further reduce friction and improve efficiency, the pod uses magnetic levitation and floats through the tube which results in it achieving speeds of around 700 miles per hour or over.

To put this in context, it will allow us to travel from Bhubaneswar to New Delhi in just over an hour. So, you could arguably travel to New Delhi for a meeting in the morning and be back by evening, faster than a flight. It is a revolutionary technology indeed.

The benefit is not limited to just hyper speeds though. It has no direct emission at all and very low power consumption, making it very environmentally friendly. In addition to this, it is enclosed, so works independent of weather conditions and is safe to travel at all times. As the system is centrally controlled there is no scope of traffic jams or collisions. In this case, it is similar to the current flight paths but safer. It has the ability to store energy, so a power failure does not affect it.

Another company working on Hyperloop, Architectural studio MAD, has even designed a solar-powered Hyperloop which is built on raised walkways with green spaces. They want to transform the cityscape into a blend of an extremely efficient mass transportation system on raised pylons, with parks and nature walks embedded alongside and underneath the tubes. It seems like an answer to the endless woes of pollution, environmental impact, traffic and time.

An indirect impact of using hyperloop would be the irrelevance of distance for communities. In ‘expensive’ cities like London and New York, the cost of living is a major factor along with space. If people can travel from as far as Edinburgh to London in 30 minutes, they can live anywhere within a few hundred-mile radii and yet commute to work. It will vastly improve the quality of life and reduce the cost of living for everyone.

However, this is a futuristic technology. Although the test ride has proven its potential, it is still a far cry from becoming reality. The current cost of development is exorbitant which will initially restrict its use to short-distance high traffic routes, say between New York and Washington DC. In fact, the government of Maharashtra has already approved plans for Virgin Hyperloop One’s first hyperloop line to be built between Mumbai and Pune, with a travel time of around 35 minutes.

Like any new tech, widespread use will drive down the cost and gradually expand its reach. All this is still a few years away with the first commercial use being forecasted in five to ten years. In the grand scheme of things that is not a long wait.

Meanwhile, companies have to take into account the criticism and risks associated with its implementation. There are the initial high cost and technological challenges to contend with. A genuine concern is the footprint of the network of tubes and their impact on the environment. Unlike roads and rail, they cannot be sculpted to sympathetically match the landscape, rather the landscape needs to be sculpted to its strict scientific needs, as of now. The feasibility and environmental impact of this, outside test conditions, is unknown and may prove to be its undoing.

Then there is the very resistance to change itself. Critics cite the fear and discomfort of people to travel in windowless tubes at extreme speeds but even today we have people who are afraid of flying. Well, I confess to being afraid of riding a horse, so I would have struggled to travel in ancient times.

Whatever the difficulties, the mechanics of it will be ironed out over time. This technology has the capability to transform the way people and communities live and work. It is based on present-day technology for our modern fast-paced lifestyles. It has the ability to help solve many of our current global issues like the environmental impact due to emissions from fossil fuels and other lifestyle choices.

It’s been a long wait for a new mode of public transportation, suitable for the requirement of contemporary times. Hyperloop could be the answer to it.

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