Elon Musk, of PayPal, Tesla Motors, SolarCity and SpaceX fame, has promoted an alternative: the Hyperloop. In this system, pressurized capsules would zoom through tubes thanks to air cushions powered by air compressors and linear induction motors at travelers’ schedules, not according to times dictated by a transportation agency.
Earlier this week, one of the companies working on the development of Hyperloop technologies ran its first public test in the southern Nevada desert, 30 miles outside Las Vegas. According to Shervin Pishevar, a cofounder of Hyperloop One, a 1,500-pound metal sled was able to shoot across a track 300 meters (320 yards) long, accelerating from zero to 60 miles per hour in 1.1 seconds.
The test only lasted a few seconds before ending in a massive plume of sand. But, according to Pishevar and other advocates of Hyperloop systems, this is a technology on the rise that could leave conventional means of transport such as rail in a cloud of dust.
In an ideal world, the Hyperloop would be a carbon-free, on-demand transport system whisking passengers between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area in as quickly as 30 to 35 minutes. These pods could depart as frequently as 10 seconds apart, avoiding clunky schedules, irritating delays and the reliance on fossil fuels while further connecting the world.
The potential of this technology is what has fueled the growth and excitement at Hyperloop One (formerly Hyperloop Technologies), which has secured millions in capital funding. TransPod, located in Toronto, and California-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) are also working on similar systems in trying to fulfill Musk’s vision.
Time will tell if Hyperloop technology will actually succeed, or if the engineers and developers working within these startups are drinking the Kool-Aid. The excitement that many have for the Hyperloop is its speed and technology, but if these companies succeed, this is what we should all really be excited about: its relatively low cost.
Many have scoffed at Musk’s suggestion that the Hyperloop can be completed in California at a cost of $6 billion. But even if those costs double, or even triple, that is still a much lower price than California’s high speed rail project. And the Hyperloop would become more cost-effective as more regions in the U.S., and countries worldwide, adopt the technology.
The fact is that while many public-advocacy groups such as the American Public Transportation Association love to issue studies about how to improve commuting within and between our cities, they never address why these systems are so expensive to build in the U.S.
Part of the problem is that, once the leader in rail, the U.S. largely gave up on trains in favor of highways in the 1950s, so this country lacks the knowledge and capacity compared to East Asia and Europe. In California, building anything requires cooperation between federal, state, county, city and other agencies, slowing the process and adding additional costs.
But even in expensive Western Europe and Japan, public transportation projects are built faster and at a fraction of the cost compared to what is built slowly in the U.S. — and we cannot just blame labor unions or greedy contractors.
The Hyperloop, arguably, is a story analogous to what led to the rise of ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft: Transportation systems as they are set up now are not working efficiently for most citizens, so we are looking for an alternative. And if the Hyperloop can succeed, look for another revolution in transportation that people will embrace while politicians and the special interests they represent cringe.
Image credit: Hyperloop One