Is the Hyperloop for Real?

Virgin Hyperloop teases us with a new video.

Interior of Virgin Hyperloop Pod
Interior of Virgin Hyperloop Pod.

Teague/ Virgin Hyperloop

Is the hyperloop for real? It's a question we have been asking since Elon Musk first came up with the word. Not the concept—it's been around since the 19th century. Nor did Musk have any intention of doing anything with it: To him, it was just his way to mess with the minds of supporters of high-speed rail in California.

But others took it more seriously. Fanboys picked up on the idea, and suddenly hyperloopy companies and proposals were flying around at hyperloop speed around the world.

I described it all as hyperloopism: "The perfect word to define a new and unproven technology which nobody is sure will work, that probably isn't better or cheaper than the way things are done now, and is often counterproductive and used as an excuse to actually do nothing at all." As I noted in a post titled "Hyperloop Is Hard at Work, Killing Taxes and Public Investment," it's been used to kill taxes in Cupertino and is always raised whenever investment in rail is proposed.

Now our friends at Designboom point to a fresh new video released by Virgin Hyperloop that makes it almost look plausible. The design has changed, with all the Magnetic Levitation equipment on top with the pod hanging below; this makes some sense in terms of stability.

hyperloop hanging

Virgin Hyperloop

Magnets on those wing-like things lift the vehicle above the passive tracks, while the four linear induction motors drive it forward. There are also magnets attracting it to the roof instead of repelling it from the floor, as is usually done in MagLev trains. The pods all operate individually and can travel in convoys or individually. They are no longer in round tubes, but in square sections that appear to have glass roofs.

different pods pouring into main tube
different pods pouring into main tube.

Virgin Hyperloop

According to Virgin Hyperloop: "On demand and direct to destination, the hyperloop system would be able to transport thousands of passengers per hour, despite the fact that each vehicle carries up to 28 passengers. This high throughput is achieved by convoying, where vehicles are able to travel behind one another in the tube within milliseconds, controlled by Virgin Hyperloop’s machine intelligence software."

Pod hanging in tube
Pod hanging from roof.

Virgin Hyperloop

This is somehow all "sustainable" because it runs on electricity and costs less to build than traditional high-speed rail. And of course, the architecture is by Bjarke Ingels, who says: “In this day and age, Virgin Hyperloop taking off from our portals provides holistic, intelligent transportation for a globalized community to travel across vast distances in a safer, cleaner, easier, and faster way than airlines.”

Passengers entering pods
Passengers entering pods.

Virgin Hyperloop

One statement with some truth behind it was from John Barratt, CEO of Teague, which is doing the industrial design. "We leveraged decades of experience designing how people and things move across various modalities – taking some of the best aspects from aviation, rail, automotive, and even hospitality to create a new and better passenger experience that is distinct to Virgin Hyperloop," said Barratt.

National Cash Register Building
National Cash Register Building, 1939 World's Fair.

George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Teague is the firm started by Walter Dorwin Teague, not quite in the same league as Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfuss, but up there with the greats. Teague designed the National Cash Register building for the 1939 World's Fair, so the firm knows one when they see one.

screen shot of fake city
Screen shot of fake city.

Virgin Hyperloop

So is this all real and actually happening, or is as fake as the rendering above, with Toronto's Scotia Plaza and First Canadian Place towers on the right? Is it just a literal pipe dream using Saudi Arabia as the new National Cash Register?

Chicago to pittsburgh route

Virgin Hyperloop

Certainly, from a Treehugger point of view, it would be lovely to get rid of all the cars and airplanes that travel these short-haul routes that are too long to comfortably drive, such as this 461 mile trip from Chicago to Pittsburgh. Virgin Hyperloop estimates that replacing the 9-hour drive and 1-hour 44-minute flight would save 2.4 million tons of carbon dioxide per year and turn it into a 30-minute trip. What's not to love?

Perhaps that it is not so easy as putting a pod in a pipe. Alison Arieff once described Hyperloop as “transportation's mysterious new girlfriend -- mysterious, unencumbered, exciting, expensive." Arieff further noted it is "a wild card with potential. But does she have long-term potential? That remains to be seen.” It still does. I have noted it is one thing to design the system:

"The engineering is just the start of their problems; the bigger ones are the meaty issues of right of way, land acquisition, expropriation, all those things that take a Robert Moses to do. It’s one of the reasons that building high speed rail in the US has been such a problem; not the technology but the politics."

Who knows, maybe this time it's different. Virgin Hyperloop is all excited about the new  $1.2 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act; it evidently "includes provisions that will support further development and deployment of hyperloop." CEO Josh Giegel says, "Hyperloop’s inclusion shows that we’re on the precipice of a new era that will change the way we think about mobility in this country."

As they always say, "If we can put a man on the moon...."