Back in 2013, Tesla boss Elon Musk published a white paper proposing a radical new mass transit system that would see people and goods travel through tubes at speeds of up to 700mph (1100kph). The concept would rival air transport as an energy efficient means of covering large distances in far less time than it would take in a car. Most of us thought he was mad, especially when he then claimed he was far too busy building electric cars and space rockets to actually do anything with the idea himself.
However, enough people took the Hyperloop plan seriously enough that at least two companies have sprung up with the competing ambition to turn the concept into reality. And one of these – Hyperloop Technologies – has just announced it plans to begin testing by Q1 this year. As Hyperloop Tech puts it, ‘Hyperloop is a transportation system in which a full-length tube is built between destinations, with a controlled environment inside the tube allowing people of cargo to travel at extremely fast speeds.’
‘Controlled environment’ means low pressure and therefore reduced friction, which makes it far easier to move the capsules – known as ‘pods’ – inside the tube, in turn enabling them to reach immense speeds. In Hyperloop Tech’s vision of this future, the pods are driven by a kind of linear electric motor device, using on-board magnets and external ‘active stator coils’ as a kind of booster system. Before progressing to the full-blown, low-pressure tube stage, Hyperloop Tech is planning what it calls a Propulsion Open Air Test (POAT) of the drive system. Scheduled for early 2016, this will take place on a 1km long track built within a 50-acre site that’s already been acquired on an industrial estate in the city of North Las Vegas, Nevada. If all goes according to plan, the firm predicts it will be able to accelerate the test platform from zero to 540kph.
That does sound like it might be too fast and a little uncomfortable, doesn’t it? But the theory goes that with the full weight of a pod and everything inside it, acceleration will be significantly reduced. And, hey, this is a publicity attracting test phase at the moment, there’s bound to be some finessing before anybody actually gets to ride on this thing.
If all goes according to plan with the POAT, Hyperloop Tech intends to advance to building a 3km tube test track at the end of 2016, with the goal of having that up and running in 2017. Ultimate aim? ‘To deliver a commercially viable, fully operational Hyperloop system in 2020.’ The Los Angeles-based company already has 72 full-time employees and $37 million in funding; a second round of financing to raise $80 million is currently underway.
On top of all this, Musk’s intergalactic rocket firm SpaceX is planning to host a competition in summer 2016 ‘geared towards university students and independent engineering teams’ that will test human-scale Hyperloop pods in a one mile test tube. Of course, even if everything goes as smoothly as progress so far suggests, there’s a big difference between proof of theory and a network of tubes that deliver a meaningful alternative to current transport norms. No matter how cool the name is…