I will admit to being a hyperloop skeptic since day one. There have been pneumatic trains running since 1845, albeit without magnetic levitation and linear induction motors to help shoot the train along. It really didn’t seem much different than the one from Popular Science in 1934 that I showed on April Fools’ Day.
But it is hard not to get a bit excited by the test of the technology from Hyperloop One today in Nevada. (that’s the new name of the company, because there is also a competing Hyperloop Transportation Technologies that’s trying to do the same thing)
World's first hyperloop propulsion test pic.twitter.com/nbgJKHTvw9— Jason Koebler (@jason_koebler) May 11, 2016
There was a crowd out there in the desert, as they shot the little test vehicle down the track, going from zero to 60 in a second with a force of 2.5 Gs. This was a test of the propulsion system only; there is then the matter of adding magnetic levitation and putting it all into a very low pressure tube. As engineer John Giegel tells Lance Ulanoff of Mashable, these linear induction motors do not have to run the length of the track.
“It only needs it on about 5% to 10% of the track,” said Giegel who explained that in a low pressure tube where the pods are levitated via permanent magnets, there’s very low drag. These motors will only need to be placed every 40 to 50 miles. “High speed rail needs it entire length because they’re outside and have a lot of drag,”
They have put together a slick team of engineers and builders, and even brought in Bjarke Ingels of BIG; Alissa Walker quotes him on Gizmodo:
With hyperloop we are not only designing a futuristic station or a very fast train, we are dealing with an entirely novel technology with the potential to completely transform how our existing cities will grow and evolve, and how new cities will be conceived and constructed.
And there is the rub of the whole thing, because as architect Mark Hogan notes:
The most ridiculous thing about the #hyperloop is that people are treating it like it is an engineering problem.— Mark Hogan (@markasaurus) May 11, 2016
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 and the rights of way. Other than the dream that this will all be privately funded and therefore be affordable and problem free because of course it is only governments that screw up.
At MIT Technology Review, Ryan Bradley talks to some other skeptics.
“It gives me pause to think that otherwise intelligent people are buying into this kind of utopian vision,” says Jose Gomez-Ibanez, a professor of urban planning and public policy at Harvard. “I don’t understand where they think they can get their savings—they’re up against the airlines, and airlines don’t need to install hundreds of miles of track.”
They are up against the railways too, which already own the track. That’s why their idea of flying shipping containers through this pipe are so bizarre. But Hyperloop One’s investor (and also a big UBER investor) Shervin Pishevar notes,
“Transportation is the new broadband,” says Pishevar. He sees Uber and Hyperloop as complementary. “You are taking atoms and bits and, for the first time in history, smashing them together,” he says. “I can take my phone out and move a car in Beijing if I wanted to. Hyperloop will do the same, but between cities.”
Right. But once again I ask: if China can build out a high speed rail network in less than a decade that moves half the country, using technology developed in Japan and Europe and in Canada, why can’t that be done quickly and cost effectively in the USA? Because it isn’t an engineering problem, it is a political one. And I don’t understand what is going to be different about the Hyperloop.