A Hyper-hip or Hyper-loopy mobility plan?

Transport in California is dominated by the automobile. The state is so readily identified with car culture that alternative forms of motion rarely enter the conversation.

But that stands to change dramatically if a wildly ambitious new public transport concept makes it off from the drawing board. It’s the Hyperloop, essentially a very long tube through which a passenger-ferrying capsule travels at very high speeds.

In fact, that’s putting it mildly. The aim is for the Hyperloop capsule to travel at a peak of 760mph (only 7mph short of the speed of sound, by the way). A journey on the proposed inaugural route linking Los Angeles to San Francisco would take a mere 35 minutes or so – a drive time can easily exceed five hours. It also handily beats the estimated two hours and forty minutes of the California High-Speed Rail, a massive, expensive train project that is still very early in its construction stage.

The Hyperloop isn’t a new concept but it was given fresh life when noted tech and automobile entrepreneur Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, published a white paper on the subject in 2013. In the document, Musk pontificated about the need for a quick yet inexpensive means of shuttling passengers back and forth between major urban centres. His solution is a capsule that would rocket through a low-pressure tube on a cushion of air – essentially, the Hyperloop would shoot through what is nearly a giant vacuum. Musk imagines that this would run on solar power. As pointed out by the New Statesman at the time, it was a modern take on the pneumatic underground railway created in the UK’s Crystal Palace area of London in 1864.

However, these days Musk has his hands full with Tesla Motors and, probably other entrepreneurial pursuits, so he hasn’t been directly involved with any subsequent effort to make the Hyperloop a reality. But, fuelled by the dream of cheap and effective long-distance transportation, not one but two start-ups have sprung from the ground. The first, called Hyperloop Technologies, has set up shop in Los Angeles and managed to attract a sizeable crew of engineers, architects, and affiliated staff. The second is the similarly-named Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, an effort powered by engineers and other technical types who volunteer their time in return for potential equity in the venture.

If either firm can come anywhere close to the modest costs envisioned by Musk, it will stand an excellent chance of making serious money. The entrepreneur pegged the outlay for the Los Angeles-San Francisco route at $6Bn, a great deal cheaper than the current estimate for the high-speed train, which stands at around $68Bn. By Musk’s reckoning, that $6Bn would shake out to a one-way ticket price of $20 for passengers.

But the Hyperloop might not, necessarily, be the public transportation of the future, nor the stuff that investor and traveller dreams are made of. A chorus of critiques has met the project, dating back nearly to the minute Musk published his manifesto. Professional mathematician and transit expert Alon Levy, in his Pedestrian Observations blog, borrowed from the technology’s name to describe it as “loopy.” Among his many criticisms of the concept, Levy says the cost estimates do not seem to take into account potentially very pricey outlays. These include the building of dedicated infrastructure over one leg of the proposed route crossing San Francisco Bay and the costs of earthquake-proofing in a state famously susceptible to ground tremors.

In addition to the many engineering challenges, like getting across the Bay, certain financial hurdles could make the Hyperloop unviable. Alexis Madrigal, senior editor of US current affairs magazine The Atlantic, points out that the big price tag for California High-Speed Rail is at least partially owing to the more than 1,000 parcels of land the state will need to buy in order to secure the planned 800-mile course of the railway. Musk’s land space-saving idea of elevating the Hyperloop on pillars doesn’t entirely obviate the need to acquire and own property. And the 350 miles envisioned for the Los Angeles to San Francisco route covers a lot of land.

But the criticism doesn’t seem to be dampening the enthusiasm of the brains and hands working to create the Hyperloop. Hyperloop Technologies lists 65 team members, covering jobs from CEO to design engineer to machinist. Meanwhile, rival HTT has secured land in California’s Quay Valley, plus the necessary financing to build a five-mile test track for a Hyperloop capsule. The company will break ground on the facility later this year.

Will either HTT, or Hyperloop Technologies, or some future competitor that hasn’t yet emerged be able to build a viable Hyperloop system? One that surmounts the many engineering and financial challenges such a project faces? At the moment, there are many clever minds figuring out how to do just that. Hopefully they’ll succeed and we’ll be Hyperlooping quickly between major cities in the not-too-distant future.


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