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Back in August 2013, Elon Musk — the founder of electric car giant Tesla, as well as SpaceX — released designs for the Hyperloop, a high-speed transportation system. Musk described his concept as "a cross between a Concorde, a rail gun, and an air hockey table.” It utilized a solar-powered series of capsules and tubes that could transport people and cargo at speeds of up to 760 miles per hour — just shy of the speed of sound.
At those speeds, it would be possible to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a mind-blowing 35 minutes. For the sake of comparison, high-speed bullet trains top out at around 150 miles per hour, and a proposed bullet train system would make that California trip in two hours and 40 minutes.
How the Hyperloop Works
The Hyperloop concept utilizes Maglev technology — short for "magnetic levitation" — which is one of the reasons high-speed rail projects in Japan and Germany have been successful. Simply put, these systems utilize two sets of magnets: One repels, pushing the train cars, or pods, up off the track, while the other is used to actually move the pods. These sets work together to establish magnetic waves that push the train forward without any connection to tracks or surfaces, thus eliminating friction.
The proposed Hyperloop also relies on pneumatic technology, which involves a vacuum or compressed air to move objects. The pods would travel through long steel tubes that have had nearly all air sucked out, eliminating resistance. Without friction and resistance, the electromagnets would allow the pods to speed through the tubes. The longer the tubes, the more space there would be for the trains to accelerate at incredible speeds — three times faster than high-speed rail and 10 times faster than traditional rail. Plus, a friction and resistance-free ride on the Hyperloop would be uniquely smooth and nearly silent.
Safety and Sustainability
Despite reaching intense speeds, the Hyperloop is capable of slowing down almost instantly. And passenger comfort would be unparalleled. The train’s speeds are comparable to air travel, but this would not impact noise levels or tip over beverages.
Musk proposed that tunnels be fitted with full-length solar panels to power all Hyperloop trains. Thus, Hyperloop travel would be solar-powered and far more efficient than aviation or other forms of transportation. Engineers believe that any company developing Hyperloop travel will earn their investment back in only 10 years. And many experts believe building these systems would be cheaper than constructing traditional high-speed railways.
Constant sunshine isn’t even necessary — Hyperloop pods would be fitted with solar-charged lithium-ion battery packs. These would provide enough power to get passengers to their destination under extenuating circumstances. Because of the closed environment of the Hyperloop’s steel tubing, inclimate weather would never delay travel.
The History of Hyperloop
The concept of Maglev technology dates back to the late 1960s, when scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a United States Department of Energy laboratory located on Long Island, received the first patents for a magnetically levitated train design. One of the engineers behind the patent, James Powell, was stuck in a traffic jam and wondered about better ways to travel on land.
The idea of pneumatic tube transit systems dates back even further, to 1845. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a British engineer and visionary, proposed building such a system in southwestern England. He hoped the trains would travel up to 70 miles per hour — a mind-blowing speed for the 19th century.
Unfortunately, materials for the project were unavailable and costs were prohibitive, so Brunel’s concept was eventually abandoned. But then, in the 1870s, one such system was briefly open to passengers in New York City. While the technology has still never been widely used in human transportation, pneumatic tubes frequently transport books in libraries, money and paperwork at banks, and mail at post offices.
Musk’s plans are open-sourced. In other words, companies and universities are encouraged to utilize his 58-page technical paper for free to develop the technology anywhere in the world. Naturally, a number of companies have jumped on the opportunity, including Hyperloop One. That project is now called Virgin Hyperloop, after the Virgin Group’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, became fascinated by the technology and invested heavily in the Los Angeles-based company.
In 2017, Virgin Hyperloop’s pods reached speeds of 240 miles per hour on a test track the company built in Nevada. More recently, in 2021, Virgin Hyperloop made history as the first company to successfully test Hyperloop technology on humans. Two passengers strapped into the seats of their Pegasus pod experienced speeds of 100 miles per hour before safely coming to a stop just 15 seconds later.
In 2022, the company shifted focus from transporting passengers to transporting cargo in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and related issues surrounding shipping and logistics. (Virgin Hyperloop also cited lower costs, fewer safety risks, and less need for regulatory approvals.) Though a number of companies and governments have expressed interest in investing in Hyperloop technology, Saudi Arabia is currently the likeliest location for a Hyperloop train linking the port city of Jeddah to Riyadh, the capital. Should the project be completed, profits could be reinvested in passenger-focused Hyperloop routes.
Several countries are in the running to be home to the first Hyperloop system, including the United States, Australia, India, Russia, Slovakia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Certainly, there is a need for clean, high-speed transportation for both human passengers and cargo. And while the cost of building Hyperloop trains will be expensive, it would be recoupable in energy savings — even as tickets remain affordable as intended, with prices in a range closer to rail travel than air travel. As an added bonus, the reasonable prices (and incredible speeds, of course) would, theoretically, mean fewer people traveling by car or plane and result in a decrease of polluting emissions.
With test tracks built or planned in the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Europe, and China, as well as Hyperloop pods debuting at press events and auto shows around the world, we are inching closer to making this innovative technology a widespread reality. But it is slow progress, with government regulations and cost being ever-present obstacles. Even the question of whether Hyperloop would be overseen by railway or aviation authorities remains unanswered. Virgin Hyperloop’s aforementioned project in Saudi Arabia and another connecting the cities of Mumbai and Pune in India may be the first Hyperloops up and running — perhaps as soon as 2030.