The Challenges Before Us
By Bruce Upbin, vp strategic communications, Hyperloop One
It’s been less than a month since Hyperloop One demonstrated our first working propulsion system. At our test site in the desert north of Las Vegas, we shot a bare-metal sled down a short track at 2.4 g’s---zero to 100 mph in 1.9 seconds. It was only a four-second test, with no brakes except a bank of sand, but our non-contact electric motor worked just as designed. For our engineers it was a huge moment. Months of hard work went into designing a new kind of propulsion system, and the motor more than passed the test. We took a real step toward making the world’s first full Hyperloop system.
The Hyperloop is a new way to move people or things anywhere in the world quickly, safely, efficiently, on-demand and with minimal impact to the environment. The system accelerates a passenger or cargo vehicle through a steel tube in a near-vacuum using that linear electric motor. The autonomous vehicles glide comfortably at faster-than-airline speeds over long distances due to the extremely low aerodynamic drag and non-contact levitation. There’s no direct emissions, noise, delay, weather concerns nor pilot error.
Our mid-May propulsion test generated a good amount of attention. Everyone brought their own a point of view. Most applauded and saw it for what it was: a first step. Others wisely started asking the hard questions. That’s good. We like hard questions, many of which we’ve asked ourselves already and some that we haven’t. So let’s take a moment to answer those that we can.
One big question we get: Why should society be investing time and money in an untried technology when we could be investing in existing modes of transportation and more proven technologies like high-speed rail? We don’t think it’s an either-or proposition. Governments should invest in better roads, metros, airports and container ports. A growing population and global economy demands more and better infrastructure. We’ve always considered Hyperloop a complementary mode of moving people and freight.
We don’t know exactly how much the first few Hyperloops will cost to build and maintain, but one outside auditor estimates we can deliver better performance for 60% of the cost of high-speed rail. That’s a start, but it’s not the disruptive improvement we’re aiming to deliver. Our engineers have ideas to get those costs down even more.
Hyperloop is a new, unprecedented and under-development technology. It’s on us to manage expectations. Sometime around the end of the year we plan to unveil our DevLoop, a working prototype of the complete system with track and vehicle moving in a near-vacuum environment. We’ve already started clearing the ground for DevLoop which, when its first phase is completed, will extend for a kilometer north of our original test side. Tube deliveries are starting in a week or so and we’ll start prepping and welding them on site, and then securing them up on columns and custom designed joints.
Who is this intended to serve?
We’ve gotten great questions about the unintended positive and negative consequences of Hyperloop. Who needs it? Who is it intended to serve? What can it do for regions that other forms of transportation cannot do? Some impacts you can plan for and some you can’t. The U.S. national highway system brought dramatic economic growth to post-war America at the cost of white flight, congestion and sprawl. We don’t know what we don’t know, but we do know that there are big opportunities to arbitrage real estate values and there is great demand to knit cities into more connected regional economic hubs. The Netherlands wants to be first to build Hyperloop in their country. So does the United Arab Emirates, and Russia, and the Nordics. Stockholm has a 15-year waiting list for apartments and booming tech sector, while the Helsinki area has an abundance of housing and underemployed engineers. We’re working on a feasibility study with FS Links of the Aland Islands to connect Stockholm and Helsinki with a 20-minute Hyperloop journey, an elegant way to rebalance the economies of the region.
Hyperloop is at its core an engineering problem, but we’re working in parallel to ensure we can and will meet all the necessary regulatory and safety approvals that apply to other transportation modes. We like regulation. It’s comforting to know that some smart people looked into a problem and came up with guardrails to keep people safe and businesses from cutting corners. We might need brand new regulations and we’d work with our global partners in business and government to get those passed. We might be able to move ahead without entirely new regulations, merely some selected changes to existing rules, but we think either course will not be a deal breaker. Hyperloop may likely appear first outside the U.S., but that’s more of a function of where commercial interest is greatest than it is the difficulty of navigating Washington.
Another whole set of questions we get often is around securing rights-of-way, and ensuring that the trajectory of the vehicle path and the integrity of the tube it moves through offers a comfortable ride at airplane speeds. Maybe it’s obvious to say, but we wouldn’t build something that is uncomfortable to ride in. Our acceleration and deceleration will be so gradual that you won't be able to feel it, anymore than you would getting onto a highway ramp in a Honda sedan. In turns, there are plenty of ways to counteract the g-forces a person would experience, even at high speed, by adjusting how the vehicle banks inside the tube. Tunneling will help eliminate bends in the network and, while it adds cost, our tunnels don't need to be as big as rail or road tunnels because our tube diameter is smaller.
What about windows?
Will Hyperloop vehicles and tubes have windows? What about emergency exits? How do you ensure passengers get to the next station? We’re working on these issues right now. We’re not ruling out windows, but we’re focusing more on the passenger experience inside the vehicle rather than figuring out how to create apertures in steel tubes. We may have evacuation points along the way, but that also adds cost and complexity to a system maintaining a near-perfect vacuum. A better solution may be to have passengers glide to the next station, where they can evacuate safely.
We think the Hyperloop is a technology everyone can use and afford. We’re facing skeptics, cynics, champions, competition and the confused. We’re not conjuring anything and we’re not performance art. There are a dozen or so people cutting, sawing and welding out back in our downtown Los Angeles headquarters as I write this. We’re going to continue inventing and investing--with private money--until we prove Hyperloop works.
We have accomplished an incredible amount in a very short time. We’ve said will be moving cargo in 2020 and passengers by 2021, and we’re sticking to that time frame.
Bruce Upbin is VP of strategic communications at Hyperloop One.