The morning commute across Manhattan on Thursday was a typical-as-of-late snarl of bottlenecks and delays, with debris of unknown origins causing an oppressive backup of the city’s subway system. It was the latest in a string of examples of the deteriorating, century-old system, another sign of the significant level of investment that’s needed to bring the subway up to 21st century standards and efficiency. Though it was an otherwise unsurprising morning, I’m mentioning it because, several hundred miles away, as New Yorkers endured another annoying trek around town through a system of the past, a theoretical, futuristic solution to public transit woes in the U.S.—the Hyperloop—took another small-step toward coming to fruition. But, alluring as it is, the vacuum transit system remains a long-shot—even with 10 possible routes now on the table.
That was the news from Hyperloop One, an ambitious startup among a number of companies that have taken on the challenge of building the hyperloop system, first outlined back in 2012 by Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
On Thursday, Hyperloop One named the ten potential routes—from Mumbai to Denver—as part of a long-running contest launched by the company to find ideal places to build the first hyperloop tracks. Hyperloop One has an extremely-ambitious timeline, aiming to have three full-scale systems operating by 2021. Four of the proposed routes are situated in the U.S.—including the one in Denver, but also a run from Chicago, through Columbus, to Pittsburgh; a lengthier trek from Dallas to Laredo to Houston; and a shorter span between Miami and Orlando.
Expectedly, Hyperloop One’s CEO, Rob Lloyd, was elated to share the news.
“We’re doing things faster than any other kind of infrastructure project has ever moved,” Lloyd said in an interview. “That’s what’s exciting about this.”
Beyond Hyperloop One, there’s Hyperloop Technologies. And Musk himself has indicated he’s willing to use his newfound Boring Company to get in the hyperloop game. (Of course, that’s contingent on whether he receives anything beyond “verbal” government approval of his proposed system.)
But it’s Hyperloop One that touts itself as being furthest along in the process of making this dream a reality, saying it’s the “only company in the world that has built a full-scale Hyperloop system.” Sounds like 2021 is a surefire bet, right? Not so much.
There Is A Track Record Here
A quick reminder of how a hyperloop is supposed to work: essentially, the idea involves building a tube system, in which people-carrying pods travel along a cushion of air, by way of a variety of methods. For Hyperloop One, the company developed a proprietary electric propulsion system, using linear electric motors that, it says, produces motion in a straight line. Air gets sucked out of the tube, making it incredibly-thin, and then the pods take off, levitating using electromagnetic currents. Or, as the company explains:
In a traditional motor, the rotor (rotating part) spins inside the stator (static part), or vice-versa; in a linear motor, the stator is unwrapped and laid out flat, and the “rotor” moves past it in a straight line. In our case, the stators are installed along the track where we need acceleration. We add power to the stators, which produces electromagnetic currents that interact with the “rotor” elements underneath the vehicle to create propulsion. The rotor and stator never touch.
At least on a granular-scale, it’s not as farfetched as it sounds: the company indeed has a proven track record. In May, Hyperloop One successfully conducted a demo run of a device that traveled 70 mph using magnetic levitation in a vacuum environment on a test track located in a Nevada desert. Then, last month, the company sent a 28-foot-long windowless pod down a vacuum-sealed tube at 192 mph.
It’s hard not to be enraptured at the sight. The core idea of a hyperloop is to allow a bunch of people to travel between major cities quickly and easily, and with airlines originating from the seventh circle of Hell and woefully-underfunded train systems being targeted for potential cuts by lawmakers, a theoretical hyper-fast trip through a pneumatic tube doesn’t sound too bad.
It isn’t much of a question anymore whether the technology could work—the enjoyment of traveling in a hypothetical hyperloop, however, and whether it’ll effectively work at a large-scale, probably merits further debate—but it’s the logistical hurdles that remain. How much is a tube system from Chicago to Pittsburgh going to cost? That’s a gargantuan question, and it’s still basically anyone’s best guess. (Lloyd demurred when asked about cost.)
Hyperloop One generally offers that capital and operating costs will “range widely based on route and application,” but the company’s optimistic that it would remain competitive with the typically-significant up-front costs of rail. The company said Thursday’s announcement is the next step in a process to answering those questions.
In part, that’ll be done with a feasibility study that’s being conducted with the Colorado Department of Transportation and AECOM, Hyperloop One said. The study, the company said, will examine “transportation demand, economic benefits, proposed routes and potential strategies, regulatory environments and alignment with overall CDOT high-speed travel, rail and freight plans.” (A 360-mile route between Cheyenne, Wyoming, Denver, and Pueblo, Colorado, was picked as a finalist Thursday.)
“These are multi-billion dollar projects,” Lloyd said by phone. “And, obviously, in order for them to make sense, they need to have an economic return.”
Lloyd sounded an upbeat tone about finding a viable path forward to achieving a solid return because, as he put it, all funding options are on the table, including a public-private model. He said the feasibility study will give stakeholders a sense of the economic potential, engineering challenges, and other preliminary costs.
“That’s our goal,” he said. “That’s our objective.”
The Entrance Of Musk
Lloyd didn’t budge when I asked about Musk’s recent entry into the field. In July, the Tesla chief stirred up a rousing comedic bit, when he haphazardly took to Twitter to announce he’d received “verbal” government approval to build a hyperloop between New York City and Washington D.C.
In reality, verbal government approval could amount to receiving the green-light from someone named Mr. Government. But Musk has since indicated he’s serious about getting intimately involved in the hyperloop game. He’s invested—to what degree, it still isn’t clear—in building tunnels using his Boring Company subsidiary, and a Bloomberg report last month said Musk wants to have a role in everything, from conception to construction, for his proposed NYC-DC route.
It was a significant turnaround from when Musk first introduced the Hyperloop idea; he is running a car company and a space firm after all.
Lloyd’s not phased, though. In a hypothetical world where flying taxis are real, autonomous cars ferry people around town, and hyperloops carry you and I between major hubs, Musk’s intercity routes could work seamlessly with Hyperloop One’s large-scale plans, Lloyd said.
“I’d love to imagine that there would be more efficient last-mile technologies connecting to where we put a hyperloop portal,” he said, “and all of that is actually part of our strategy. There’s some really good things happening in transportation.”
Is It The Right Investment
But those really good things—high-speed future vacuum travel tubes, the fantastical idea of flying cars—have a heavy burden of proving they can operate safely and effectively.
Lloyd’s company wants his hyperloop pods to travel close to 700 mph, a ferocious speed that could cut down travel times between Chicago and Pittsburgh to roughly 45 minutes. Miami to Orlando would take 26 minutes. Hyperloop One wants to bring that to life within a hopeful timeline that suggests a rapid development of seven years from inception to launching its first routes. It’s an unbelievably quick pace to conceive, build, and safely run a system that, to date, hasn’t been tested by anyone other than Hyperloop One.
Land rights likely remain an even bigger question at-hand. Lloyd hopes to go down existing right-of-ways, he said, and that question is something else he believes the feasibility studies will resolve. But, again, the goal is 2021. That is to say Hyperloop One wants to build several hundred miles of tracks and safely demonstrate the technology can work within the next four years. It’s as literally incredible of a goal as it is for Musk to suggest he has a green-light to build a hyperloop through the heart of the east coast, simply because someone at the White House likes the idea. (The negative response from city officials to Musk’s bravado shouldn’t be discounted in the herculean task ahead to bring the hyperloop to life.)
But Lloyd isn’t deterred. The interest expressed to Hyperloop One from cities and governments and engineering firms from across the globe is remarkable to note, he said.
“There was a much stronger government support than I might have imagined,” he said.
And that’s fine. What city wouldn’t want to have their hand on a full-fledged hyperloop? Still, I can’t help but struggle to square the overwhelming enthusiasm and public relations push for a brand new mode of transportation with our still disastrous infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates we need to invest $4.6 trillion to fix the infrastructure we already have; is it really practical to take on a mostly-untested futuristic tube transporter? Shouldn’t the focus be on funding road fixes, subway upgrades, better bus systems, an expansion of the disconnected train system that’s currently deployed? Is it really worth the substantial effort that’ll be needed to obtain land to build a hyperloop system?
I wouldn’t necessarily mind being proven wrong. And Lloyd seems to think that transit infrastructure old and new can work cohesively as one unit.
“I think everywhere in the world, and when you look at transportation infrastructure, it’s not just the roads the highways and bridges—we have a legacy out there and, clearly, every planner, every mayor, every city, and every department of transport realizes that the bottlenecks are getting worse,” Lloyd said. “They’re not getting better.”
Hyperloop One, as he puts it, is one piece of that puzzle. When it comes to carting around a significant amount of people at high-speeds, Lloyd asserted, the hyperloop can alleviate congestion at airports and cutdown travel times even further.
“Our system solves a problem when high speed transportation is the goal,” he said.
I’m not actively trying to discourage the development of new modes of transportation. I’m just not sure it’s practical for municipalities to invest in an unproven technology—especially when there’s so much need for basic fixes.
The Colorado feasibility study will be interesting to watch. Shailen Bhatt, executive director of the state’s transportation department, said in a statement that the agency’s excited to partner with Hyperloop One to explore “the next step of feasibility of this innovative technology, potentially transforming how Colorado moves.”
“The Hyperloop technology could directly align with our goals of improving mobility and safety in Colorado,” Bhatt said, “and we have been encouraged by the continued progress the technology is taking.”
The operative word there is, of course, could.
Could a hyperloop be built? Sure. Should it be built? At least we’ll soon have numbers to cut through the bluster and answer that question.