Hyperloop: The “Pipe” Dream in Need of Time

Posted on in Events News

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EVENTS: Following Virgin Hyperloop One’s latest project updates at the 2018 Middle East Rail conference, Leanne Wheeler, Senior Consultant for North Star Consultancy, shares with airrail NEWS how we must learn to look past the hype of hyperloop in order to be ready for the day when it changes everything.

Last year’s Middle East Rail conference saw Virgin Hyperloop One make some big promises to a technically minded and expertly sceptical rail audience. Slick, beautifully created marketing presentations envisaged a futuristic landscape where pods would zoom at speeds in excess of 1000km/h (671 mph) through perfectly straight metal tubes, providing seamless, point-to-point travel between neighbouring cities at record speeds in order to redefine regions.

As Virgin Hyperloop One continued its worldwide sales mission throughout 2017, the plaudits came thick and fast. “London to Edinburgh in just 50 minutes!” claimed The Telegraph. “No two GCC cities more than one hour apart!” boasted Gulf News.

Yet the audience at the rail conference that day was left partly enthralled, partly bemused and entirely ready to challenge. Was Virgin Hyperloop One in danger of selling nothing more than hype itself?

Assessing the Present Reality
Since last year’s conference Virgin Hyperloop One has made significant strides in terms of real, tangible progress. The proof of concept was established in May with the world’s first successful test run in a fully constructed loop located in the Nevada desert. The organisation received a large boost when Sir Richard Branson invested in the company and became Chairman of its Board. As the firm seeks further investment to develop its technology, the weight of Branson and the Virgin brand can only help move the commercialisation agenda forward.

That said, no one can deny that concerns over the safety and feasibility of hyperloop still exist. How can we predict if hyperloop is still set to achieve the aim of offering a transformative new travel mode that will redefine the boundaries of cities and regions as we know them? The answer lies in drawing lessons from the past and specifically the launch of commercial air travel, which developed enormously over the course of a series of technological leaps throughout the 20th century that nobody could have foreseen.

Ultimately, through recognising that we do not yet have all the answers and being careful to set realistic expectations in spite of the hype, we can in fact lend ourselves more easily to believing the long-term vision. The technology has been proven; it simply needs time.

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Drawing Lessons from the Past
The world’s first scheduled commercial airline flight occurred on January 1st, 1914 when a Benoist Type XIV biplane piloted by Antony H Jannus carried former St. Petersburg Mayor A. C. Phiel for a short hop across Old Tampa Bay in Florida. The flight lasted 23 minutes, with a maximum airspeed of 64 mph and flew at a height of just 50 feet. Whilst we would scoff at this in terms of today’s aviation, it was ground-breaking at the time.

35 years later, at the end of World War 2, the Jet Age was born. A British de Havilland Comet became the first commercial jet engine to fly in 1952. Boeing developed its 707 airliner and completed the first transatlantic flight in 1958 and the world’s first jumbo jet (the Boeing 747) revolutionised air travel once more in 1970. Without even considering other technological leaps such as supersonic jets regularly exceeding speeds of Mach 2 and man’s rocket-fuelled adventures into space, it is clear with hindsight that that one short flight across the Old Tampa Bay in 1914 paved the way for incredible progress.

Compare this to hyperloop successfully reaching speeds of 374 km/h (250mph) on its very first test run. Who could possibly foresee how hyperloop technologies could develop over a similar timespan of 100 years?

Whilst it is easy for technical experts to dismiss hyperloop entirely and point out its seemingly many challenges, it must be remembered that there are no greater gifts than hindsight and time. Let us not forget for example, that former President of the Royal Society and esteemed physicist Lord Kelvin himself declared in 1895 that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible”. At the time, such a leading expert in the field of science would scarcely have been challenged. Yet, we now know how wrong he was. The success of air travel has been phenomenal, arguably transforming the world as we know it.

Realistically Planning for the Future
The current focus on hyperloop must therefore, not be on questioning whether 1000km/h+ speeds are indeed possible or whether we will one day be able to nip to New York for a Yankees match and be back in London for breakfast. We cannot let the dream cloud the reality. It must be on developing the technology to operate safely at sub-optimal speeds and implementing hyperloops in places where real benefit can be gained by the technology as it operates in its current form. All we really need to know right now is the best base from which to make the next leap forward.

An excellent example of an answer to this conundrum comes courtesy of the Mumbai – Pune corridor in India, where Virgin Hyperloop One recently announced that is has signed a binding agreement with the State of Maharashtra to develop a hyperloop between the two cities within the next five - seven years. Not only is the route planned to operate at slower speeds but crucially, the route map contains curves! It could be said that this represents an admission on the part of Virgin Hyperloop One that its marketing maps filled with straight shiny lines between A-B are unrealistic. If this is the case, then this provides a reassuring hint of actual, tangible progress.

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Virgin Hyperloop One and other companies developing hyperloop technologies would do well to focus their efforts in countries similar to India, where saturated cities are separated by vast expanses of relatively flat terrain. This will afford the opportunity to build and refine the required infrastructure at reduced cost in comparison to heavily built-up cities (compare this to the London – Birmingham HS2 route, for example, where the infrastructure and tunnelling costs would be entirely prohibitive).

Towards the Next Giant Leap for Mankind
One of the key difficulties facing Virgin Hyperloop One and its competitors is that they must drive private investment in hyperloop by creating excitement, without risking a loss of confidence in their products by making claims that seem at best, too futuristic, or at worst, technically impossible.

For all the buzz that the shiny marketing presentations, promises of 1000+ km/h and idealistic journey time calculators based on straight lines create, we must learn to readjust our expectations and support the gradual development of hyperloop through incremental steps. Otherwise there is a real risk that hyperloop will, for a long time, exist in the realm of extreme and super-futuristic sci-fi, only to be believed by the devoted few and left to be derided by the pessimistic (and some may say realistic) many.

The certain truth is that hyperloop technologies are developing as we speak. Now that the technology has been proven, it can only get better, faster, safer and cheaper.