Last week, I wrote about Hyperloop, a blue-sky, Tomorrow’s World sort of project led by Elon Musk that has the potential to be our fifth-mode of transport (after automobiles, boats, trains and planes). I was sceptical about the technology, logistics, safety, security and cost-effectiveness of the existing proposals. However, standing up against the UK’s plans to build a new network of high speed rail routes up until 2033, with costs expected to reach £75bn, and the considerable interest in vacuum tube technology, Hyperloop shouldn’t be dismissed, I thought. I like the idea of reaching Manchester in just over one hour from London but the public purse is not unlimited and there are competing demands on the state. Therefore, we should wait until we are absolutely sure this is the best use of the transport budget, and – if we do then go ahead with it – speed up the construction.
Yesterday, Alexander Chee at the Wall Street Journal has reported extensively on the recent progress of Hyperloop and the mad rush to get a working prototype out. It is good news – here’s an extract:
“Imagine that you could travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a half-hour. As you sit down in an engineless pod the size of a bus, your seat remembers you and adjusts the entertainment settings. The pod accelerates to 760 miles per hour, a velocity made possible by the near-vacuum inside the tube. There’s no engine noise—the nearest thing to an engine is the tube, a smart tube that measures speed and location. The pod has been pressurized to minimize the G forces effects on a passenger; the trip is as comfortable as a flight. All of this is solar-powered.”
“This is the dream billionaire inventor Elon Musk unleashed on Aug. 12, 2013, when he posted a white paper on the website of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., also known as SpaceX. Titled “Hyperloop Alpha,” the paper contained notes toward what Musk called the fifth mode of transport—the other four being planes, trains, automobiles and boats.”
“Elon Musk is joining what may become the biggest tech free-for-all in American history—one he started. But not all of those interested in making the Hyperloop work are answering the contest’s call. The Hyperloop Movement, as some of its unaffiliated members refer to themselves, is officially bigger than the man who started it.”
You can read the full piece here, but the main takeaway was that companies covering design, user experience, aerodynamics and engineering are tackling the problems that I flagged up in my article. Proper companies such as Aecom and Oerlikon, and serious investors such as Shervin Pishevar and Jim Messina, are getting on board. Elon Musk and SpaceX are building a test track and will host a competition for 318 teams from 16 countries producing pod designs.
There’s a real chance that in ten or fifteen years’ time, we could have a mode of regional and international transport which challenges both the rail and airline industries. Imagine being able to live in the Cotswolds, Dartmoor or the Peak District and have London on your doorstep. The capital city’s housing crisis would be solved overnight. There’s a growing optimism about this project, and if we see more concrete indicators of success over the coming years, the government will struggle to sell its bloated HS2 rail strategy. For this reason, it might be sensible to pause and wait, to see if this seemingly madcap Hyperloop concept really could be a viable alternative.