Innovation

Hyperloop: The smart person's guide

Everything you need to know about the ground transport system, which promises travel faster than an airliner at a fraction of the cost.

Hyperloop is potentially the next big leap forward in transportation, promising to be faster and cheaper than air travel. However at present it only exists in theory, and some remain sceptical about Hyperloop's commercially viability.

This smart person's guide is a quick introduction to Hyperloop that will be updated as the fledgling technology develops.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's smart person's guides

Executive summary

  • What is Hyperloop? A vision for a ground transport system that would travel faster than an airliner at a fraction of the cost.
  • Why does Hyperloop matter? Because hundreds of millions of dollars has been invested in designing these potentially revolutionary transport systems.
  • Who does Hyperloop affect? Everyone. Hyperloop routes have been proposed across the globe.
  • Who are Hyperloop's competitors? Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies are the major organizations working to build Hyperloop systems.
  • When is the Hyperloop happening? Hyperloop One plans to have three Hyperloop systems in service by 2021, but no working systems have been created to date.

SEE: Travel and Business Expense Policy (Tech Pro Research)

What is the Hyperloop?

Hyperloop is a vision for a ground-transport system that would travel faster than a commercial airliner at a fraction of the price, popularised by Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

The transport system would carry passengers and freight on board a vehicle travelling at up to 760mph. These fantastically high speeds would be made possible by two key differences to modern trains. The vehicle would be raised above the track, using either magnetic levitation or a cushion of pressurized air, removing resistance as the wheels turned. Secondly, the vehicle would travel inside a tube where most of the air had been pumped out, massively reducing the speed lost to friction.

Hyperloop is a concept, one that Musk has heavily promoted in the hope that a company or research group will bring the system to fruition. Since Musk's companies Tesla and SpaceX published papers outlining the Hyperloop Alpha system in 2013, a variety of commercial companies have begun developing their own Hyperloop systems, with the biggest being Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. While these systems were inspired by Musk's 2013 paper they differ in design.

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A prototype of a Hyperloop One pod.

Image: Hyperloop One

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Why does Hyperloop matter?

Because it has the potential to revolutionize transport.

Hyperloop routes could massively reduce the time it takes to travel between major cities: 30 minutes from San Francisco to LA, 50 minutes from London to Edinburgh, eight minutes from Helsinki to Tallinn, 55 minutes from Melbourne to Sydney. And while air travel costs hundreds of dollars, advocates for Hyperloop technology say journeys could cost far less.

The original Hyperloop concept paper suggested Los Angeles to San Francisco would cost $20, and more recently the CEO of Hyperloop transport company ET3 posited a $50 trip between the US and India.

It's also potentially feasible. Hyperloop One has attracted more than $160m in funding and has engaged more than 260 engineers and other staff to build the world's first Hyperloop system.

A study run by Hyperloop One found the cost of building and operating a 500km Hyperloop network between Helsinki and Stockholm would be competitive with that of high-speed rail systems.

That's not to say that Hyperloop doesn't have critics. The proposals have been attacked for being unproven, likely far more expensive than projected and impractical.

A common criticism is that travel on board a Hyperloop vehicle would be hugely uncomfortable, with passengers submitted to double the g-force they would experience during take-off on a commercial flight, and for a prolonged period, which could induce nausea. Another potential problem is that the vehicle would be travelling at such high speed that any disturbance in the cushion of air the vehicle sits upon could result in severe bumps, again causing discomfort.

However, changes to Hyperloop designs since the initial concept have lessened g-forces, with Hyperloop One saying they would be no worse than take-off, saying additional mitigations would make the journey as smooth as riding an elevator.

Pieces of Hyperloop One's test track.

Image: Hyperloop One

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Who does Hyperloop affect?

Potentially everyone. Hyperloop transport systems have the potential to usher in an era of cheap, and convenient long-distance travel across the world, as well as offer a low-carbon emission alternative to flying.

Hyperloop routes are being considered in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Australia. While the original Hyperloop concept showed a route from Greater Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay area, the most detailed route proposal to date has been Hyperloop One's outline of a 500km link between the Swedish capital Stockholm and the Finnish capital Helsinki. Hyperloop One has published nine potential European routes, connecting 75 million people in 44 cities and spanning 5,000km. HTT is also working with authorities in the Czech Republic and Slovakia to explore whether a track could be built between the two nations' capitals.

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Image: Hyperloop One

Hyperloop One has been running a contest to find the most suitable routes for the first Hyperloop transport networks, with the winners due to be announced this year.

However, these routes will only be completed if commercial Hyperloop systems prove to be viable. To date, no organization has produced a working Hyperloop system, and there have been earlier failed attempts to create a sealed tube train system. In 1864, the Crystal Palace atmospheric railway, shut down after only a few months of operation. However, technology has advanced so far beyond these crude 19th century efforts that modern systems are incomparable.

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Who are Hyperloop's competitors?

A number of firms are competing to be the first to realize Musk's vision.

As well as Hyperloop One and HTT, another notable organization engaged in designing systems is TransPod, which is aiming to build a computer-controlled system that operates at more than 1,000km/h.

Alongside these efforts, the ET3 Global Alliance represents a consortium of organizations that have been working on realizing a system similar to Hyperloop since the late 1990s.

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When is Hyperloop happening?

Not for a while. To date the only Hyperloop systems that have been built are small-scale test facilities, including one created by SpaceX for other firms to test Hyperloop pods.

Hyperloop One says it has validated various subsystems and began testing its entire system in May this year, when it fired up its Development Loop test system in the Nevada Desert. So far it has successfully accelerated a magnetically levitated capsule to almost 200mph through the 500-meter long tube. After successfully validating the technology, Hyperloop One plans to work towards having three Hyperloop systems in service by 2021.

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About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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