SAN FRANCISCO – In a white-board world, Hyperloop sounds ideal.
Take a sleek pod, place it in a vacuum-sealed tube and let it float frictionless above its rails using tested magnetic levitation, or maglev, technology at speeds up to 800 mph. Picture a puck effortlessly racing across an air hockey table and you have the idea, one that can already be seen in action on Shanghai's speedy maglev train.
By erasing the vehicle-clogged arteries of our national highway system and those aging miles of transcontinental railroad track, commute times get slashed and fossil fuel gets saved. What’s not to like?
Yet moving this transportation alternative from sci-fi vision to real-world ubiquity involves financial and logistical roadblocks that call into question its wisdom, according to technology and transportation experts.
The issues raised include Hyperloop’s cost (a 350-mile run between Los Angeles and San Francisco has been estimated at $6 billion or more), technological demands (tubes would have to be straight and vacuum-tight to keep speeds high), practicality (short hops would not make sense) and comfort (humans might not go for travel that feels like a roller coaster ride lodged in tunnels).
“I sense a bit of hucksterism right now that’s helping companies raise money,” says Ralph Hollis, a research professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University who is an expert on maglev tech.
His concerns range from whether endless links of welded tubes can retain the vacuum integral to maintaining high speeds given the inevitable geological shifts in California's earthquake country, to the physiological impact on passengers of speeds that approach the supersonic.
“A lot of different things have to go right for this to really work, business, legal, technical,” says Hollis. “Demonstrating that it runs isn’t really enough.”
Premise is solid, promise is murky
"That it runs" refers to a recent demo in the Nevada desert, where Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One successfully launched its maglev-enabled sled across a 100-yard track. The company plans to build a five-mile enclosed loop by year’s end. More boldly, last week it announced a Russian partnership to explore a new Silk Road route across Asia.
Hyperloop One has taken the lead in this tube race, raising $90 million and boasting investors such as GE Ventures and SNCF, the French national railway company. A rival concern, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, announced in March that its futuristic pods could appear first in Slovakia, where officials are studying a proposal.
Do we want Hyperloop?
Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing Hyperloop is the poor reception offered to its slower cousin, high-speed rail.
Consider that for its size, the U.S. has only one such run – Amtrak’s Acela Express line along the Northeast Corridor — while smaller England and France each have an example, the Eurostar and TGV respectively.
In 2008, California voters approved $10 billion in funding for an ambitious San Francisco to Los Angeles bullet train akin to Japan's Shinkansen, but it has yet to make headway. The $68 billion effort, which uses an alternative to maglev technology, was able to gain some initial traction thanks to billions in federal funding, but has been bogged down in lawsuits from aggrieved communities and by cumbersome land acquisition deals.
“Just getting a maglev train here would be great, but the U.S. is a strange place. Most people consider high-speed rail a boondoggle," said Jim Mathews, spokesman for the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
Mathews, a former Aviation Week editor, says he's learned not to bet against Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX and Tesla Motors and drew up the concept of Hyperloop in a white paper three years ago.
But he's not the only one doubting appetite for such projects, especially in the U.S.
John Macomber, senior lecturer on infrastructure and urbanization issues at Harvard University, says he remains unclear "why Hyperloop would be more valuable than trains or airplanes. I know speed matters, but maybe not that much.”
Macomber considers Hyperloop a fascinating but likely money-losing proposition that "could show up in a Gulf nation eager to try something new, where it could stand as a technological proof of concept but not an economic one,” he says. “Here in the U.S., it’s easier to make incremental improvements to the systems we have, like going to self-driving cars, than leaping to Hyperloop.”
Even when a high-speed train does pique interest, investors seem to get cold feet.
Tony Morris, CEO of American Maglev, an Atlanta-based company that has developed a small maglev train that could soon make its U.S. debut in Orlando, where it will run between airport and convention center. But first, officials there would need to opt for that variant over traditional trains.
“Maglev trains use 60% less energy than their steel-wheeled counterparts, but even though we say maglev’s time has come, the people making the decisions to build new lines aren’t all about taking risks,” says Morris. “The good news is this is new technology, and that’s also the bad news.”
Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd is unfazed by suggestions that Hyperloop One is a moonshot or boondoggle, preferring instead to call it simply ahead of its time. It's focused on developing a proof of concept that can be licensed to investors with the cash and desire to build Hyperloop.
Transportation shifts inevitable
Hyperloop or not, something does have to give on the transportation landscape.
A swelling and aging population is straining a highway ecosystem that President Eisenhower inaugurated 60 years ago this month. In Los Angeles, commuters waste a record 81 hours a year in traffic, according to transportation data company Inrix. The National Safety Council reports that traffic deaths jumped 8% in 2015 to 38,300.
“The terrain ahead for transportation is an increasing demand for mobility, especially from boomers who won’t want to drive as they age,” says Rocky Moretti, director of policy and research at Trips, a non-profit transportation advocacy group.
Moretti says that transportation officials from every state met this spring to discuss how to tackle these challenges, and the conclusion was to “make the best use of the resources available” while paying close attention to the growing progress made by tech and auto companies alike on self-driving cars.
“We see a lot of changes coming, so I suppose anything’s possible,” he says. “I’d say the biggest demand isn’t so much to make the system faster, but safer.”
Read Article (Marco della Cava | usatoday.com | 06/25/2016)
Whether you agree with the article (the Hyperloop is too much too soon) or not, it going to happen. Once you give society a glimpse of the future, they will have it no matter the cost or danger. So hang on tight and get ready for the Hyperloop tax we are gonna pay.
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