Since the first industrial revolution, man has been pursuing faster and more efficient ways of transport. From Carl Benz with the invention of the automobile in 1886 to the Wright brothers first successful flight in 1903, mankind has been constantly searching for better and alternate methods to transport people locally and internationally.
Innovations in travel is also being driven by the ever-increasing number of people who want or need to travel. The first concept that came close to what we know today as the Hyperloop was the Vactrain technology envisaged by rocket pioneer, Robert Goddard way back in 1904. The concept was to design a very high-speed transit system that was described as magnetically levitated and had a vacuumed tube, theoretically allowing for super high speeds.
THE HYPERLOOP CONCEPT
The current Hyperloop concept, brought to you by none other than Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, and Tesla, is an ultra-high speed transport system where pods use a combination of magnetic levitation and partially evacuated steel tubes that carry cargo and passengers, traveling at extremely high speeds. Musk announced his idea for the Hyperloop in 2013. Fast forward 7 years and we are seeing great progress with this idea becoming a reality.
Elon Musk is a name synonymous with striving to break the mold in futuristic transport development. He is most well-known for being involved with the development of SpaceX, along with the re-invention of a range of battery electric vehicles (BEV) for mass production by Tesla. Elon is involved with many alterative ideas of transportation, but one that stands out significantly from the rest is the development of the Hyperloop system. He first publicly mentioned the Hyperloop system with a joint team from Tesla and SpaceX, who released an open-source design called the Vactrain, which was based on the original concept by Robert Goddard.
The basic idea of the Hyperloop is creating a vacuum chamber, in this case, in a large, sealed steel tube with low air pressure, which encases a pod transporting passengers or cargo at high speeds. There are two scientific reasons that reduce speed efficiency with fast moving vehicles, namely friction and wind resistance. So, so if these items are eliminated from the equation, it is possible to achieve extremely high speeds with minimal energy consumption. A few high-speed bullet trains currently use similar technology and achieve incredible high speeds but nothing like that proposed for the Hyperloop transport system, which is predicted to transport people or cargo at a near hypersonic speed, faster than that of air travel.
In his search to develop a high-tech mode of transportation, with technologies that have not been applied yet and construction methods that are new and still in development, the best way forward is to tap into young scientific minds by making this technology an open-source environment.
This gives companies and universities around the world, or anyone who has an interest in the Hyperloop concept, the ability to access all the software and construction information available and use it to develop similar projects by adding their input into the pot. This open-source community allows everyone to add their concepts and developments as well as utilizing already established processes. To get the creative juices flowing, Elon set up an engineering competition amongst students at universities to transform his idea of designing a passenger pod that will run in the Hyperloop system.
More than 100 universities and 1000 students from around the world entered to stand the chance of winning this prestigious competition. In the end the winning team was chosen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) followed by Delft University of Technology in second place and the University of Wisconsin coming third. The MIT winning design was based on magnetic skids that lifted the pod above the rails during high-speed travel with wheels that allowed for movement at slower speeds. Additional built-in features include emergency fail safe braking, which would stop the pod if the computer failed at any stage. Currently, their design is purely a pod concept with no space for passengers or cargo. These additions will be included in the testing phase when more data is collected. The MIT now has the opportunity to build and test their pods in the USA. Of the 115 teams that entered the competition, 22 will have the opportunity to test their pods and designs at the SpaceX test track.
The basic idea at this level of the competition is to see which team manages get their pod to achieve the fastest possible speed over a 1-mile-long test track. The aim of this competition is to spur interest in the development of new transport technologies for the future. Currently, SpaceX and Tesla will not be developing their own Hyperloop system but will make available technological input from construction methods to software and design concepts.
HYPERLOOP TUNNELSWith the construction of the new proposed Hyperloop routes, the steel tubing structure will either be raised above the ground on columns or tunneled below the surface. This construction process would not have a dramatic impact on traffic or surrounding communities as there would be no need for vehicle crossings and any major above ground excavation would have a small footprint and not affect existing infrastructure. With the idea of underground tunneling, Elon Musk established a new company, “The Boring Company” or TBC in December 2016. Shortly after his announcement, TBC started the construction of a 9m wide,15m long and 15m deep testing trench on the SpaceX premises in Hawthorne. He was so keen to get the test trench dug that he stated, “let’s get started and see what the biggest hole we can dig between now and Sunday”, the boring machine moved in and ran continuously for 24 hours a day.
The Boring Company constructs economical, quickly built tunneling projects in 12-foot inner diameter tube configurations for a range of 5 different products, namely: Bare, Utility, Pedestrian, Freight and Loop which are designed to accommodate various applications. All these tunnels are bored to the 12-foot inner diameter spec and have certain components installed for the selected applications required. These include LED lighting, CCTV cameras, fire repressive systems, ventilation and more. All the tunnels are available for a minimum distance of 1.25 miles with no distance restriction. There are currently several tunneling projects on the go including the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority (LVCVA). The first phase was due for completion in early 2021. This would then have the first tunnel under the city that is fully operational. Unfortunately, this has been delayed due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The initial idea for The Boring Company was to build tunnels for battery electric vehicles (BEV) that would run on a rail system similar to that of a train track, allowing for speeds of around 150 mph. The idea was to alleviate above ground traffic congestion. TBC was also used to create a usable tunnel system at SpaceX; however, it has now focused its energy on digging tunnels for Hyperloop and Loop routes. Musk stated that the first route would be from LAX to Culver City which is around 5 miles and by bus can take about 1.5 hours during peak times for the whole trip.
The Las Vegas Convention Centre Loop is another proposed option. The Loop projects operate on a slightly different system using compatible autonomous electric vehicles (AEVs) which can travel up to 155 mph. These vehicles would be along the lines of the modified Tesla Model X and Model 3 vehicles which have a capacity of up to 16 passengers. This Loop would connect various exhibit halls to several campuses within the Vegas Convention Centre, along with the connection to the Vegas Loop which will link casinos along the strip to the international airport, stadiums, and other locations in Las Vegas. There are a multitude of benefits of underground transportation in this manner which include no surface noise, as the construction and operation is silent. No above ground construction blocking roadways or disruption affecting communities and high-speed transport is convenient and comfortable which is totally unaffected by the weather.
Many private institutions have shown interest in the Hyperloop technology race. Hyperloop Transport Technologies (HTT) is an America research company formed by using crowdfunding collaborations, as well as several other private institutions researching and developing Hyperloop technologies. However, the company that stands head and shoulders above the crowd is Virgin Hyperloop, (previously Hyperloop Technologies and Hyperloop One), which is an America based company striving to compete in the race to create the first commercial high-speed Hyperloop derivative of the original concept called the vacuum train.
Billionaire and philanthropist Sir Richard Branson founded Virgin Hyperloop in 2014. He is excited about the potential for a new transport system that can cut traveling times down from hours to potentially minutes. What was once considered as a mere concept, has now produced full size testing infrastructures with sites operating trial runs now over a distance of 500m. The Virgin Hyperloop team has spent 3 years testing and developing at the DevLoop Test Center in the Navara Desert outside Las Vegas.
The Virgin Hyperloop project has achieved its first big milestone by successfully running a test pod at the DevLoop Test Track with 2 passengers. One being Virgin Hyperloop’s chief technology officer and co-founder, Josh Giegel and the other the head of passenger experience, Sara Luchian. The Pegasus pod or XP-2 accelerated to a speed of 100 mph and then slowed down to a stop. Describing the ride, Sara said it felt a little like a plane taking off but smoother and more quieter. The pod uses similar propulsion methods to bullet trains that being magnetic levitation. These trains reach speeds of around 300 mph, however the team feels that if there is enough track, they can definitely reach speeds much higher than that.
Diana Zhou, the project director at Virgin Hyperloop, describes the future ride as being “boring” in so far as the passenger should not feel any massive acceleration or braking and would have no idea at the speed that they are traveling. It should be a smooth and comfortable journey arriving at your destination within minutes. Virgin Hyperloop uses magnetic levitation and vacuum pumps to reduce wind resistance to propel passengers in a pod at proposed speeds of up to 700 mph. Previously, these concepts were from the pages of a science fiction book and now are in the process of becoming reality.
Virgin Hyperloop is now in the process of searching for a home for their new larger test site which plans to be around 6 miles in length, thus giving them the opportunity to try and achieve speeds of over 700 mph. This will give engineers greater insight into passenger movement in and out of the Hyperloop system along with getting an idea of a full-scale working environment. This will then allow a regulator to start the certification process for the commercial use of Hyperloop systems. The feasibility of these projects also needs to be discussed with government agencies because connecting cities is more viable due to the fact that the benefit of these systems will show their worth over longer distances which will make connecting these cities more efficient and much quicker.
The US Department of Transport has recently announced that it will make specific department communications available for the development of future non-traditional forms of transport such as the Vegas Loop and Hyperloop technologies. USDOT is the first US agency in the world to start developing specific regulations for the Hyperloop technology, which will fall under the federal railroad administration department. This also makes for the availability of funding for projects that fall under this department.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE FUTURE OF TRANSPORT
The Hyperloop concept has now become a near reality, with governments and private companies all on board. The idea of having fully operational super speed Hyperloops connecting cities and countries around the world, is much closer than we think. Technology nowadays is changing and developing at such a rapid pace that from one day to the next, new inventions and developments could change the world dramatically.