It becomes a habit that Elon Musk keeps media busy and public curious with his wild projects. Although his strategy pays off, there is a lot of questions about the real implication and scalability of his ideas. Considering his avant-garde idea of the Hyperloop, a technology cumulated a lot of hype recently by completing a successful demonstration in Nevada when it hit a milestone by demonstrating both, hardware and software.
The private test was held on May 12 at the company’s DevLoop test tube in the desert north of Las Vegas, and the test pod — propelled by electricity and lifted by magnetic levitation inside the tube — “coasted” for 5.3 seconds, topping out at 70 miles per hour. Musk’s white paper predicted the transportation pods could hit 700 mph.1
Recently, Elon Musk has created a buzz around by tweeting about a governmental verbal approval to build the Hyperloop tunnel from New York City to Washington DC. Unfortunately, Mike Dunn, the city spokesman immediately commented Musk’s statement: “We do not know what he means when he says he received ‘verbal government approval’. There are numerous hurdles for this unproven ‘hyperloop’ technology before it can become reality.”
Whether it was just a matter of pure enthusiasm coming from the Musk’s tech obsession or well-thought marketing step to revive the project, Elon Musk needed to walk back his claim by adding more clarity into this news and confirming still a lot of work which is needed to receive formal approval.
Hyperloop in few words
For these who are getting lost in all Musk’s project, let’s refresh our mind what the Hyperloop project is about. The essential idea of the hyperloop transportation system was around for a couple of years, however, it was Elon Musk in 2013 who sketched the projected and proposed a vacuum tube-based transport. In his proposal, the Hyperloop consists of a low-pressure tube with capsules that are transported at both low and high speeds throughout the length of the tube. The capsules are supported on a cushion of air, featuring pressurized air and aerodynamic lift. The capsules are accelerated via a magnetic linear accelerator affixed at various stations on the low-pressure tube with rotors contained in each capsule. Passengers may enter and exit Hyperloop at stations located either at the ends of the tube or branches along the tube length.
In a nutshell, Musk’s Hyperloop idea is to travel through operates in a partial vacuum with less air resistance. The Hyperloop One contains an aerodynamic capsule units which are about 28 feet long and constructed from aluminium and carbon fiber for strength and light weight. The technology is planned to transfer 164,000 passengers daily and cargo nearly supersonic speeds according to co-founder Shervin Pishevar:”By achieving full vacuum, we essentially invented our own sky in a tube, as if you’re flying at 200,000 feet in the air.” 3
As far as safety goes, despite the rapid speed Musk has promised this would be safer than any other method of high speed transportation; derailments won’t be possible, a safety brake will be built in for emergencies, earthquake dampers will keep it stable during natural disasters, and pods will be maintained at a safe distance from one another to prevent crashes.
A network of Hyperloops promises a smart future for infrastructures. The Hyperloop solution geographically and economically could act as a strong decentralizing force, reversing the trend of urbanization and people moving from rural areas into towns and cities. The disruptive transport technology could significantly reduce the energy consumption, reduce pollution, speed up transport with ease of traveling reduce and tackle major problems such as traffic congestions on the roads and overcrowded cities. People could work in cities and live miles away that are not densely populated. Undoubtedly, there is a potential to revolutionize the entire transport sector IF the Hyperloop One overcomes its major challenges.
What are these challenges?
It is evident that Musk’s Hyperloop is making a progress. However, many critics are picking up on its speed rather than function. As mentioned above testing hit a top speed of 70 mph and next planned test seeks to achieve a speed of 250 miles per hour what is still a way to far from 700mph estimated 4 years ago. What more, one could argue that time savings of around 20 minutes hardly now made an invigorating story for £55bn of investments.
Any individual capsule crashing would cause a domino effect failure that would prompt a pressure wave to shoot down the tube at the speed of sound destroying all the other capsules. Dr. Phil Mason, a former Cornell University chemist, states that the pressure wave caused by the Hyperloop crash would probably be larger than the overpressure associated with a nuclear weapon, which can kill people and would certainly wreck the rest of the tube. This is one of the reasons why Hyperloop One is focusing firstly on moving cargo instead of people.
Among others, the pressure of the air outside would push against the tube with the force of roughly 10 tons per square meter what represents another huge technical challenge which wasn’t solved yet along with a maintenance of the adequate vacuum over a long distance. A maintenance of the Hyperloop structural integrity, as it is done with bridges using expansion joints, poses a real engineering challenge
Despite any skepticism around the Hyperloop transport system, in the current world of immense technological progress driven by unexpected inventions, increasing number of investments into exciting and disruptive tech projects and growing tech community, a feasibility to integrate a new transport system into a current infrastructure is pretty high. The question remains when and if the technology will be not beaten by another disruptor.