Hyperloop - Making Science Fiction a Reality

Hyperloop Future Science Fiction

The Hyperloop is a high-speed transportation concept that could potentially shorten travel times immensely. Originally conceived by perennial visionary Elon Musk, the Hyperloop is currently under development for many purposes, including a 35-minute voyage from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and a freight transportation network in Russia.

Hyperloop travel involves small pods gliding on a small cushion of air at high speeds. All Hyperloop processes are to take place in a large tube that has most of its air pumped out, which reduces resistance for pods and allows them to travel at potential speeds above 700 mph (1126.5 kph).

History of the Hyperloop

The background of Hyperloop-like technology reaches far deeper into history than Musk’s announcement several years ago. The Hyperloop bears a striking resemblance to the science fiction-based concept of the vacuum train, which was present in fiction as early as 1888. However, this concept is believed to have been borrowed from the 1812 scientific document, "Calculations and Remarks Tending to Prove the Practicality, Effects and Advantages of a Plan for the Rapid Conveyance of Goods and Passengers Upon An Iron Road Through a Tube of 30 Feet in Area, of the Power and Velocity of Air" by George Medhurst, in which he introduced the idea of air-driven tube travel.

Some real-life projects have even made use of similar technology, albeit in a less-advanced form. For example, the short-lived Crystal Palace pneumatic railway in 1846 South London contained a carriage fitted with collared bristles that was sucked along a 10-foot wide semi-airtight tunnel from the power of a large fan.

Hyperloop Past History
Crystal Palace Pneumatic Railway

In addition, in 1870, in the first attempt at transit tunneling in New York City, Alfred Ely Beach, inventor and editor of Scientific American, designed the Beach Pneumatic Transit line. While this was more of a novelty or demonstration than a fully functional mode of transit, it was still the first subway line in NYC. On a much smaller scale, New York City also operated a pneumatic tube mail network in 1897 that stretched 27 miles.

Because of its persisting presence in our popular culture, it was easy for the public to have a strong understanding of the Hyperloop’s design in the time before Musk publicly revealed it, especially after he hinted that the Hyperloop was a "cross between a Concorde, a railgun, and an air hockey table."

After long maintained anticipation, Musk revealed his plans for the Hyperloop in August 2013 through a 57-page PDF. In this document, he shot down previous theories on how something like a Hyperloop would work, instead proposing "a low pressure (vs. almost no pressure) system set to a level where standard commercial pumps could easily overcome an air leak and the transport pods could handle variable air density would be inherently robust."

He also projected that people would sit in pods that whipped through large steel tubes, and the pods could reach a max speed of 760 mph (1223 kph) throughout a total travel distance of 900 miles (1448 km). His initial plan for the Hyperloop was a 35-minute transit from Los Angeles to San Francisco, which he predicted would cost $7.5 billion to develop. Musk decided to not personally develop this technology, and instead made it open-source so that others could adapt his ideas into something fruitful.

Hyperloop One (formerly Hyperloop Technologies) is one of the primary organizations working to create the L.A.-San Francisco Hyperloop. Currently, this organization is conducting propulsion tests to determine if the technology is feasible. They strive to pioneer the fifth mode of transportation (after road, water, air, and rail).

Another California-based startup that is racing to create the high-speed transportation system is Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. In addition to development on a line in California, they are notably looking worldwide for locations that would benefit from a Hyperloop, such as Slovakia.

However, the development of this technology is not just limited to companies. Musk and SpaceX have strongly encouraged the involvement of university students to get involved with the development process. SpaceX has even announced a competition, to take place in summer 2016, in which university students and engineering teams will be able to test their human-scale pods in Hawthorne, California.

Issues with the Hyperloop

As expected with something so new and advanced, there are many problems present with the Hyperloop that developers need to solve. Among these are obvious dangers, such as the potential hazards with a pod traveling hundreds of miles per hour through a metal tube. These require stringent testing to be better solved.

Another issue is the cost. Even though Musk predicted that the California Hyperloop would cost approximately $7.5 billion when he first pitched it, some critics are now calling that estimate unrealistic, and the New York Times even calculated that the actual cost would be much closer to $100 billion.

A related concern is the cost of fare once the Hyperloop has been installed. With the immense expenses needed to create the transit system, it is possible that a single trip will be very costly. This could exclude the common person from using the transportation system.

As Musk presented it, the Hyperloop will be self-powered from solar panels located on top of the tube, with the help of compressed air as energy storage. This makes it very energy efficient, but it is possible that it will not be remarkably environmentally friendly. The tube, to maintain such a high speed, will have to avoid turns and hills, meaning that it will likely have to travel in an undisturbed straight path. If this is true, developing the Hyperloop could require severe destruction of the nature and landscape of California. Environmental concerns aside, this would be very difficult to accomplish.

Hyperloop San Francisco
Imagine a large tube passing through here.

Another concern that has been rarely discussed is the issue of windows. Will the Hyperloop pods contain windows that let the passengers stare into the outside world? At speeds of 700 mph, could this be possible without straining the passengers’ eyes? This will likely be answered throughout the development process.

Many critics also state that a high-speed rail system (which Musk has demonstrated opposition to) might be a better alternative to a Hyperloop. In fact, there is a high-speed rail system in California currently under development that would be able to manage the traffic that a Hyperloop might not be able to accommodate. However, this high-speed rail system has continuously been delayed and is only favored by 44 percent of California residents.

Progress on the Hyperloop is still very much in its infancy, and its developers will need to overcome many hurdles before we are able to Hyperloop travel in our daily commutes. However, it should not be cast aside as some kind of unattainable dream of the companies involved.
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