Levitating into the Future

By Donovan Makus

 

What if you were able to travel comfortably at speeds approaching 1,000 km/h without ever leaving the ground? This is the idea behind a hyperloop, a transportation network that would use pods to transport people, vehicles, or freight, traveling inside of either vacuum-sealed or low-pressure tunnels using electric power. It’s a technology that could revolutionize transportation in the 21st century.  

First coined by Elon Musk in 2012, this technology relies on low-friction tunnels, which make it possible for pods to be rapidly transported between fixed locations that are all connected in a loop. Musk’s design uses a similar principle to an air hockey table to accelerate and levitate the pods. The current designs and plans are being pursued by Musk’s new enterprise, The Boring Company, focussing on a design decision to move aboveground transportation to subsurface tubes.

Though this was originally proposed by Musk, he isn’t the only one to be exploring the possibility of rapid transportation. Virgin Hyperloop One, Transpod (a Canadian company), and Arrivo are just some of the other companies seeking to develop a commercially viable hyperloop system. Virgin Hyperloop One, which uses a magnetic levitation system rather than a purely air-powered system, is working on developing its technology in Europe and the Middle East. It remains to be seen which of these competitors will be the first to build a functioning, commercially viable hyperloop.

The first planned loop by The Boring Company is in Los Angeles, California. Its goal is to alleviate congestion. The next planned route is in the Acela Corridor between New York City and Washington DC. Further routes are planned between Los Angeles and San Francisco  as well as in Texas, and potentially in Europe. Virgin Hyperloop One held a competition to select which routes would be best; it is also planning routes in Canada between Toronto and Montreal, and the UK and Mexico. Other companies are planning routes in the Middle East and Asia. Despite the issues that need to be overcome, hyperloops are being planned all around the world.

While hyperloops provide enticing benefits, there are a number of potential issues and trade-offs. Large projects that push the limits of new technology have a tendency to come in significantly over their initial budget, and the private investors and governments that would be involved in a project of this scale would need reassurance that their money would be reimbursed. Current estimates for The Boring Company’s Los Angeles route suggest a ticket cost of $30 USD, but this has been criticized for being unrealistically low.  Hyperloops are designed to be more environmentally sustainable than air travel, but they would still have an impact on the environment from their construction. Safety and security are also issues and, in an age of global insecurity, hyperloops cannot be easy targets. At the same time, hyperloops must be able to operate at a safety margin similar to their main competitor, the airline industry. Despite the high profile given to plane crashes, the airline industry has an excellent safety rate per capita. The Boring Company’s design also calls for windowless pods accelerating at 0.5 g, a magnitude of acceleration several times greater than that of an airliner taking off, given these conditions it remains to be seen how many people would be comfortable using a hyperloop system.  

Hyperloops are not without challenges, but they also hold great potential. If they become widely available and affordable, they are capable of revolutionising the 21st-century regions and megacities in the same way that commercial air travel changed the way the world operated in the 20th century. A complex pod network would enable users to avoid the effects of congestion inside of large cities, which negatively affects the productivity and quality of life. Combined with other potential technologies such as driverless cars, these could revolutionize how we spend our time; gone would be the days of spending an hour or more each day focusing on commuting, as hyperloops would drastically shorten commutes. Hyperloop hub systems would enable people in distant suburb cities to be able to quickly commute into the central city, leading to the growth and prosperity of existing megacities.

Using hyperloops to ease congestion would only be economically viable in the densest of wealthy cities. Hyperloops also have the capability of revolutionising intra-regional trade and business. To live in one city and work in a different city is rare nowadays, which leads to horrific commutes, a lower quality of life, and a larger ecological footprint–hyperloops could revolutionize this. Someone could opt to live in a different city than they work in order to stay close to family or friends or to avoid disrupting their social life and yet still feasibly commute to work. Large corridors that are connected primarily by high-speed rail and airliners, such as Boston to Washington DC, could instead be connected by a large-scale hyperloop.

While there are significant challenges facing the hyperloop concept, it also holds hope for great advances in modern technology. The influence it would have on everyday life would be immense, enabling greater regional connections and shorter commutes.While hyperloops are still in the planning phases, they hold great promise as an environmentally sustainable and rapid method of transportation.

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