Kristen Hammer grew up in central Ohio, where cars and deer have a long and grisly history on the state’s roadways. That’s also the case, of course, in countless other regions of the country. But a new mode of high-tech transportation she’s helping to develop, called a hyperloop, could be a remedy of sorts. Self-contained, ultra-high-speed and wildlife-free, it’s starting to pick up steam (figuratively speaking) in America and around the world.
As business development manager for Los Angeles-based Virgin Hyperloop One, which has so far garnered nearly half a billion dollars in venture capital (including a recent infusion of $172 million), Hammer works with local governments across the U.S. to forge crucial alliances and establish key routes. The company, which is on much firmer footing after some challenging years in 2016 and 2017, currently has projects under consideration or underway in Missouri, Texas, Colorado, North Carolina, the Midwest, India, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
“We spend a ton of time just educating people on what a hyperloop is,” said Hammer, who previously served as manager of materials engineering and a senior welding engineer for the company’s DevLoop test track in Las Vegas. “[Officials] can’t give us intelligent regulation if they don’t know how the system works and what the moving parts are.”
Here in the U.S., hyperloop proponents are making efforts to bring about that regulation sooner than later, so they have official strictures within which to build. But until that happens, commercially viable systems aren’t possible and companies are left to make hypothetical cases for why the technology is worth backing.
“Politically, or at least ideologically, people tend to frame regulation as the enemy of industry and innovation,” said David Pring-Mill, communications director for the nonprofit Hyperloop Advanced Research Project. “In reality, sometimes certain types of corporations actually want to know what regulators are thinking and want to know what the rules are going to be so they can calculate, innovate and invest accordingly, and get better access to capital markets. The emergence of progress and clarity on the regulatory front actually increases the likelihood of a domestic [hyperloop] route in the near future.”
The technology is already there, he said. It’s largely a matter of proving that hyperloops are viable business-wise in the absence of governmental support, and that they'll have a positive impact in terms of environmental, social and governance (ESG) benefits. None of that is easy, but it’s absolutely necessary.
“If you’re a company and you have a new technology and people don’t know what it is or what it’s value is, and you tell them that it’s going to cost a tremendous amount of money, then the onus is on you to prove the value and viability.”
Super fast — but your coffee won’t slide
If you’re wondering how these things are supposed to work, here’s the nutshell version: sleek metal pods hurtle through low-pressure, windowless vacuum tubes with the help of magnetic levitation and electromagnetic propulsion — kind of like the pneumatic tubes used in libraries and bank drive-thrus, but not really; they’re far more powerful and sophisticated. Jet-like speeds could exceed 500 mph and top out around 670. (By comparison, a Boeing 747 cruises at 540 mph). And the ride, whether elevated or subterranean, will reportedly be much smoother — or so a company engineer told the New York Times earlier this year.
“You’ll feel 30 to 40 percent of the acceleration compared to an airplane,” he said, and “coffee won’t slide” even at the highest velocity. Presumably the same holds for adult beverages. But it’s hard to truly know just yet — so far the fastest hyperloop pods have topped out at just 288 mph.
Rather than serving as cross-country transportation, hyperloops will most likely connect cities in the same region. There already are efforts to link Midwest hubs like Pittsburgh, Columbus, Cleveland and Chicago, and the ability to access those places more quickly could allow people to live and work hundreds of miles apart without worrying about a long commute.
Grace Gallucci, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) in Cleveland, Ohio, is working with another California-based company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (aka HyperloopTT) to bring hyperloop travel to her region. While the Midwest might have a “functional pilot” in seven to 10 years, she said, it will be another 25 years before we see a nationwide network.
“I think [hyperloop travel] is really promising,” Gallucci said, “but we would all be foolish if we thought you could take technology of this magnitude and this scale, develop it today and implement it tomorrow. There’s so much that could still prevent it from happening, or allow it to emerge as an even more transformational form of transportation.”
In 2017, Virgin Hyperloop One had what the company's business strategy director, Josh Raycroft, has described as its “Kitty Hawk moment” — a reference to Orville and Wilbur Wright’s famous 1903 test flight in North Carolina.
“We successfully completed the world’s first full-system, self-powered Hyperloop test-run,” he told the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation” during a hearing in Washington, D.C. last September. “This gives us high confidence we can reach our target speed of about 600 mph as we continue to develop the technology.”
A month after Virgin’s announcement, HyperloopTT unveiled its first full-scale capsule, made of composite material, in Spain. It’s the same capsule — 30 meters long with a capacity of 28-40 passengers and sheathed in a proprietary material called Vibranium — that’s now on the company’s test track in Toulouse, France.
Modern hyperloops were the brainchild of tech titan Elon Musk, who detailed his theoretical invention in a 2013 white paper and whose SpaceX company hosts annual pod-designing competitions.
“The Hyperloop (or something similar) is, in my opinion, the right solution for the specific case of high traffic city pairs that are less than about 1500 km or 900 miles apart,” Musk wrote. “Around that inflection point, I suspect that supersonic air travel ends up being faster and cheaper… [But] for a sub several hundred mile journey, having a supersonic plane is rather pointless, as you would spend almost all your time slowly ascending and descending and very little time at cruise speed… Short of figuring out real teleportation, which would of course be awesome (someone please do this), the only option for super fast travel is to build a tube over or under the ground that contains a special environment.”
Impressive. And derivative. Pressurized tubes are old news. They were used to cart passengers beneath London in the 1860s — though not at high speeds — and New York’s Broadway in the early 1870s. The Rand Corporation even came up with the notion of a tunnel-based, electromagnetic wave-driven “Very High-Speed Transit” system in the early 1970s.
And so-called “maglev” trains, which function via magnetic attraction and repulsion, have been around as a concept for more than a century and in operation since the mid-1980s. Currently the world’s fastest train, the Shanghai Maglev in China, can achieve speeds of up to 267 mph and has ferried folks from the city’s Pudong International Airport to a metro station 19 miles away since 2004.
Bumpy road ahead
Before they’re ready to roll, er, hover, hyperloops — whether those built by Virgin Hyperloop or several other companies in North America and abroad that are vying to be first at bat — have lots of impediments to overcome. A not-small one is cost. For now, let’s just say it’s definitely in the multi-billions.
A few years ago, Forbes obtained Hyperloop One documents revealing details of the hyperloop track between L.A. and California’s Bay Area — Musk’s original route. It was estimated that constructing a 107-mile loop just around the Bay Area alone would cost from $9 billion to $13 billion. (Then-CEO Rob Lloyd confirmed the numbers, calling them “high-level estimates” likely intended for prospective partners). But as a 2018 Vox story noted, even the $9-to-13 billion range is still a bargain (per mile) compared to the $2.5 billion Second Avenue Subway stop in New York City. And it’s far cheaper than New York's ongoing Long Island Rail Road project, which has skyrocketed to $3.5 billion per mile. It’s also way less expensive than California’s now-downgraded plan for a high-speed train, which originally would have covered 520 miles at $123 million per mile.
“The cost per mile will vary [by] project,” said Sarah Lawson, Virgin Hyperloop’s marketing product manager. “This is exactly what feasibility studies are for — to model the ridership, demand, alignment, etc. for a specific route that will inform the cost to construct the system.”
Also in 2016, HyperloopTT told the Wall Street Journal that estimated costs per mile for its more conventional system were between $5 million and $20 million, which Miller said is low. Generally, he added, the cost is around two-thirds of what it would take to build a high-speed rail route. The company recently completed a feasibility study for its Chicago-Cleveland-Pittsburgh project and plans to announce cost-specific details in mid-November.
“The interesting thing with our system moving forward are not the cost numbers, it’s that we can build a profitable system,” Miller said. “Then it’s not really about cost, it’s about how quickly you can recover the investment.”
Rick Geddes, a professor at Cornell University’s Department of Policy Analysis & Management, said there’s going to be lots of “learning by doing” as this technology evolves.
“As you learn how to [build] the hyperloop routes, there’s going to be a cost-lowering effect from that. Just like in any industry, as your output grows, the cost per unit falls.”
There are also several things that could cause costs to rise, Geddes noted, including environmental permitting, stakeholder complaints and political red tape.
On the subject of ROI (return on investment), which hyperloop hypers insist will be significant, he said a host of unknown variables precludes any sort of firm prediction.
“It’s really hard to say. I think there are going to be some routes and projects where the ROI will be high. But that presupposes funding. How is it going to be funded? Not financed, but funded. And by that I mean where did the underlying dollars come from. Are you going to charge each user per mile? Are you going to charge them per minute in the tube? Are you going to charge for freight as well as passengers? So all of that drives your revenue. Before you can talk about an ROI, you have to understand your revenue model.”
There also are issues related to certification and the aforementioned regulation — setting standards and parameters for unproven technology, agreeing on safety measures and more. Right-of-way and permitting concerns are part of the mix, too: Where can hyperloops be located?
Using a passive magnetic levitation system dubbed Inductrack that was developed by Lawrence Livermore Labs and eliminates the need for a powered a supercooled track, HyperloopTT is exclusively focused on passenger transport. Besides its 105-long prototype capsule in France, it’s working toward constructing a fully functional three-mile-long commercial passenger line in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. It’s pitching Australia on the concept, too, and in America — through a public-private partnership with the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) — the company is studying the feasibility of establishing a route between Cleveland and Chicago.
Rob Miller, chief marketing officer for HyperloopTT, said the biggest challenge is “building regulations for a new form of transportation and the partnership that requires with local, municipal, state, regional and federal government. So it’s something we’ve been working on for a number of years and is the thing that will lead us towards getting a hyperloop system approved.”
As Gallucci explained, “You can’t have a feasible system without having a nationwide standard that is adopted and enforced by USDOT.”
Hammer spends most of her time in the U.S. and said there are ongoing efforts to establish domestic routes. So far, though, the country that seems most likely to land Virgin’s (and, perhaps, the world’s) first hyperloop is India, where construction of a Pune-to-Mumbai hyperloop is underway in partnership with the State Government of Maharashtra as part of a public infrastructure project. If completed, it could cut the commute between those cities from more than 3.5 hours to 35 minutes.
However, Hammer adds, “If somebody came forward tomorrow [in the U.S.] and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got financing and we’re ready to sign a contract,’ it’s not unreasonable that the U.S. could jump out in front.”
Miller said HyperloopTT’s efforts include a 600-page document containing general regulation guidelines that has been passed along to the European Commission, which is responsible for various legislation overseas. In America, it’s forging a relationship with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology (NETT) Council, formed in late 2018 so inventors and investors can discuss plans and proposals with a single entity instead of wasting time with multiple agencies.
But politics can also hamper progress, Pring-Mill said. (The most recent example of that is the scuttling earlier this year of an extremely pricey and comparatively slow high-speed rail system in California that was expected to link several major cities.) So while he’s upbeat about the NETT Council, Pring-Mill thinks hyperloops will happen overseas before they hit the United States — not least of all because there are fewer issues with eminent domain, whereby governments acquire private land for public use.
“Even though I don’t think that’s necessarily morally right,” he said, “that ability to secure right-of-way can certainly reduce the cost of a mega-project and majorly speed up development and construction times.”
In the U.S., Geddes said, right-of-way is a “huge issue” and “one argument for tunneling, because it’s easier to get a permit to tunnel than it is to get something at grade or something that is elevated on pylons.”
Existing interstates, he added, are a possibility because public right-of-ways are hundreds of feet wide on either side. Going down the middle is a possibility too. But those are options only if the route is straight. Negotiating a curve, even a small one, just isn't possible at 600 mph.
Political and regulatory issues aren’t the only speed humps slowing hyperloop adoption. Safety, too, is a major concern. As the U.K.’s Eureka Magazine noted in a 2017 article titled “The impossible engineering reality check facing hyperloop,” a number of issues must be addressed. One is the thermal expansion of steel tubes under direct sunlight and whether or not they can withstand a sudden pressure change in case there’s a natural or manmade breach — before hyperloops can be practically implemented.
On its website, Virgin Hyperloop addresses those potentially problematic matters and others by emphasizing that its tubes are made from buckle- and puncture-resistant “thick, strong steel.” Additionally, it goes on, tubes and pods are being designed to handle extremely low air pressure and to “tolerate small leaks, holes, and even breaches without suffering from reduced structural integrity.” And strategically placed sensors will immediately locate and report leaks so they can be quickly repaired. Also: “Every pod will have emergency exits if needed, but mostly pods will glide safely to the next portal (station) or egress point in the event of an emergency.”
And according to Chris Bobko, HyperloopTT's head of engineering integration, when it comes to the “well known and well understood” concept of thermal expansion, there are several possible strategies that stem from effective existing practices — including those employed by pipelines and railroads.
“In some scenarios, we plan for thermal expansion bellows to control where we want the thermal expansion to accumulate — and these are off-the-shelf components with long lifespans. In other scenarios, we don’t need these devices at all.”
On the risk of hyperloop tubes buckling from a negative pressure difference, Bobko explained that “routine structural and mechanical engineering takes all these loads into account and adds appropriate safety design factors when developing a structural design for the tube.”
Automated hyperloop travel is less susceptible to human error as well, Miller claims. And besides being deer-free, the tubes are clear of obstructions that often cause train accidents, namely humans and cows.
Better for people and The planet
A big selling point of hyperloops is their purported environmental friendliness. They could, for instance, be at least partly self-powered by solar energy instead of gobbling up fossil fuels — though at this point there’s no clear research to indicate if or to what degree that’s feasible. And they could potentially eliminate a lot of driving for commuters as well as freight haulers, which would ease fuel consumption and reduce pollution.
In addition to feeding off the sun, Miller said, “you’ll potentially collect wind energy. And you get some [energy] back through kinetic and regenerative braking.” The pylons that support a hyperloop track, he added, could even double as power stations for recharging cars and providing other services. In short, he believes, nature wins and so do people.
From a humanitarian standpoint, Pring-Mill said, hyperloops could come to the rescue during natural disasters by serving as a transportational backup system. If a bridge is crippled, for example, or there’s congestion on the highways, hyperloops could speedily deliver disaster relief supplies and personnel to affected areas.
Like so much else about hyperloops, though, all of that is merely speculative. Still, supporters maintain, they will come to fruition and they will be transformational.
“I’m almost certain it will happen eventually,” Geddes said. “It’s just a question of the time. The last new mode of transportation was probably the Wright Brothers in 1904. And since then, we have kind of been refining and building out these old modes. So it’s really time for a new transportation mode to be explored and utilized.”
Hammer is even more certain, calling hyperloops “a fundamental change in how people live and move.”
Miller, too, is genuinely pumped: “It’s leagues above anything we’ve built as a civilization.”
Both may be true, but there’s a long and winding path ahead that’s not conducive to high speeds. Unlike with other technological innovations, moving fast and breaking things isn’t an option.
“People thought airplanes could never get off the ground,” Gallucci said. “And there are some folks that never envisioned the worldwide air travel we have today. But that didn’t happen overnight. And this is not going to happen overnight.”