The Hyperloop – a new era for mobility

The Hyperloop – a new era for mobility

3 June 2019
hyperloop Mobility transportation
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It’s 2060. Environmental concerns and high petrol prices have gradually turned people away from carbon transport systems, and high tech has picked up the baton. Dreamed up half a century earlier by the ingenious Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, the Hyperloop has progressively established itself as the world’s fastest and safest mode of transport.

But what is a Hyperloop? Basically, it’s a system of capsules carrying passengers or freight through a near-vacuum tube, free of air friction, at speeds of 1,200 km/h propelled by magnetic levitation. If the Hyperloop lives up to its hype, it won’t only be an evolution for rail transport but a real revolution for mobility in general.

From Jules Verne to Elon Musk: the underlying concept

A true visionary genius, it was Jules Verne who was the first to imagine “pneumatic tubes stretching across the oceans” that could transport people at 1,500 km/h. Described in his predictive short story “In the Twenty-Ninth Century: The Day of an American Journalist in the Year 2889″, could this futuristic transport system have been a source of inspiration for South-African entrepreneur Elon Musk?

Legend has it that it was the hours Musk wasted in Californian traffic jams every day that gave him the idea for the Hyperloop. First publicly mentioned in 2012, Musk describes the Hyperloop as a “cross between a Concorde, a rail gun and an air hockey table”. This fifth mode of transport (alongside boats, planes, cars and traditional trains) would be an ultra-fast and safer alternative to air travel and would be immune to weather conditions.

Organic development

To give his concept the best chance of success, Elon Musk went against standard industrial practice and made the Hyperloop an open-source project. A dozen companies joined the development race, but three main start-ups have now pulled away from the others: Virgin Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, both based in California, and Transpod based in Canada.

The technical challenges are huge: creating the tubes and evacuating the air in them, designing the pressurized capsules, developing the system for magnetically levitating the capsules and devising the linear induction motors to propel them. And all the while keeping to a reasonable budget so this ultra-high-speed train can continue to be developed over the long term.

In the trio of start-ups currently heading the development race, Virgin Hyperloop One seems to be in front. In May 2016, it successfully conducted the first live trial of Hyperloop technology, on a test track near Las Vegas in Nevada. The following year, its prototype travelled 450 metres and reached a speed of 310 km/h – still a long way off the world record speed of 603 km/h currently held by the “Maglev” train in Japan. Virgin Hyperloop One aims to have a working freight hyperloop system in place by 2021.

Hyperloop TT’s objectives are even more ambitious. This start-up – which has built a test site in the Toulouse region in France – has promised to link Dubai to Abu Dhabi by hyperloop by October 2020. TransPod is more prudent, setting 2030 as the date for its first commercial line.

Revolutionising mobility on a global scale

Three and a half hours to get from New York to San Francisco, just under six hours to travel to Vladivostok from Moscow (versus seven days on the Trans-Siberian which it currently takes), seven hours to cross the African continent from Algiers to Cape Town, and so on. Since the disappearance of Concorde, the Hyperloop represents the most radical mobility innovation on both a local and global scale.

In addition to offering impressive speeds, this magnetic train could be energy self-sufficient thanks to the use of cladding made of solar panels, and regenerative braking. In these times of energy transition, this is a very strong argument to win over the faint-hearted.

Will these ambitious entrepreneurs be proved right in the future? If the Hyperloop does see the light of day, this train-plane would be a way of creating closer links between both neighbouring and distant countries and of reminding us that we all live on the same planet.

 

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