The Hyperloop has been in development for years now, and it just had its first successful test, building a track and magnetically levitated sled in less than six months. But what is the hyperloop, exactly, and why are some futurists so excited about it?
A New Kind Of Rail
The Hyperloop is more or less an attempt on the part of several companies and interested engineers to make real a theoretical concept called the vactrain. Modern trains are increasingly using magnetic levitation, or maglev, technology. Maglev allows trains to move shockingly fast, with a Japanese rail company developing a test train that can move at nearly 400 miles an hour. But while maglev devices can theoretically move as fast as airplanes, they’re held back by air. Air friction limits just how fast the trains can go before there are serious safety issues, and only allow maglev trains be almost as fast as the slowest jetliner.
The vactrain takes air out of the equation. In theory, at least, that would make the trains the fastest possible form of transportation. It’s unlikely the Hyperloop would go that fast, but it does give you an idea of the scale and how it wants to leapfrog current public transit.
A Bumpy Ride
There are, however, a few problems with using it, at least as a form of mass transit. The biggest, by far, is the power needs. The initial proposed tube for the first Hyperloop would go from LA to San Francisco, a distance of 380 miles. Sounds convenient right? That entire distance, however, would need to be evacuated of air as much as possible. That’s a lot of vacuum pumps, and it’s not clear how much power a long track would need to create a full vacuum. It’s a problem some insist can be solved by covering it with solar panels, but that needs to be tested.
Another issue is that riding in the Hyperloop might not be a pleasant experience, even if work is ongoing on making it better. The track can’t curve, but shifting is inevitable due to seismic activity and other factors, so riding in the Hyperloop might very well be a bone-rattling journey.
Finally, there’s the issue of public works. Building any sort of transit system is an enormous, and expensive, undertaking that will require the cooperation of dozens, in some cases hundreds, of towns and cities, state civil authorities, and even federal governments. The requirement that the track have no bends only adds to the problem. That’s a lot of paperwork to wrangle, to put it mildly, and a lot of money to raise. Current high-speed rail projects in California have seen $3.5 billion spent by the government so far, and the Hyperloop might cost billions more.
A Faster Way
That said, however, the potential, even just with cargo shipping, is enormous. Even a system of Hyperloops just moving freight between a specific network of transit hubs would drastically cut down cargo shipping times. And if the engineering challenges to make it comfortable (if not enjoyable) can be licked, the potential is there to create a network of transit that would be faster than hopping on a plane. There are many technical challenges that have to be defeated. But if the Hyperloop can get past them, all the hype might turn out to be an understatement.