Saturday, February 24 , 2018, 6:31 am | Fair 32º

 
 
 
 
Advice

Tam Hunt: Will Hyperloop Live Up to the Hype of ‘Tube Travel’?

Elon Musk white paper concept art.
Elon Musk white paper concept art. (SpaceX illustration)

Elon Musk, a master at gaining media attention, released in an offhand way in 2013 a long white paper on a “fifth mode” of transportation, after planes, trains, cars and boats.

This fifth mode is the “hyperloop,” an electric propulsion pod train system suspended on air cushions in a near-vacuum tube with a pressure equivalent to flying at 150,000 feet. Say that 10 times fast.

The “train” will in this case consist of as many pods/capsules as needed, with 28 people per pod, given demand. Each passenger pod is fairly small, just wide and tall enough for two seats.

The two tubes of the hyperloop (one going each direction) would be suspended on concrete pillars, generally about 20 feet high, allowing for the tube to pass over existing roads, etc., without disruption, which is not possible for high-speed train systems.

Pod concept design. Click to view larger
Pod concept design. (SpaceX illustration)

Musk and his team estimated that this route would cost just $20 each way and a single hyperloop system between Los Angeles and San Francisco could transport up to 7.4 million people each year.

The total cost to build was estimated at about $6 billion for the passenger-only version. A version that could include cars as well as people would cost a little more.

The initial design that Musk sketched was for a route between Los Angeles and San Francisco, projected to take just 35 minutes at a top speed of 760 mph.

The suggested benefits of the hyperloop are many, including lower cost of construction and operation, faster speeds than high-speed trains (HST) and even airplanes, and fewer environmental impacts.

Which, if any, of these claims are accurate? And where are we in terms of hyperloops actually being built?

This column will examine these issues. The short answer is that the hyperloop could indeed be very fast, very efficient and very clean. Less clear is what it will actually cost, and history suggests that the costs will be far higher than the Musk paper estimate.

Many people have been inspired by Musk’s vision of the hyperloop, and at least three companies in the United States are now working seriously on the hyperloop concept: SpaceX, Musk’s own company is developing a hyperloop pod test track and is hosting a competition for the best pod designs; Hyperloop Technologies, a Peter Diamandis company based in Los Angeles that has raised significant funding already and is hiring for a ton of open positions; and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a virtual company with members spread across the United States that is focused on building a 30-minute hyperloop between Washington, D.C., and New York.

I’ll look at each of the major claimed benefits of the hyperloop, in turn.

Energy Efficiency and Hyperloop

The white paper describes the general problem as follows: “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.”

A major advantage of the hyperloop tube concept is its potential for extremely efficient transportation on a large-scale. Musk’s white paper suggests that the energy required per seat-mile of travel could be as low as 50 megajoules per journey between San Francisco and Los Angeles, far lower than other possible travel options. Figure 3 is from the white paper, but no sources or calculations are offered.

Musk white paper data on efficiency of different transportation modes for travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Click to view larger
Musk white paper data on efficiency of different transportation modes for travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco. (SpaceX graphic)

We can find support for these figures very easily, however, if we agree that the hyperloop can be powered mostly or entirely by solar or wind power over or alongside the hyperloop route. Powered entirely by solar and wind power, the net emissions of the hyperloop are practically zero.

So even if it’s not as efficient as Musk calculated (no one knows at this point because a prototype hasn’t even been built yet), it could fairly easily be powered with 100 percent solar and/or wind power, which would mean almost zero emissions, though we would need to account for the emissions from constructing components and concrete, etc.

Renewable Energy and Hyperloop

Even if hyperloop uses coal or natural gas power, at the expected level of energy efficiency it may still be more efficient and environmentally friendly than the alternatives like high-speed rail or plane travel.

Whether this is, in fact, the case will depend on the actual designs that are built, rather than the white paper’s suggested designs. But, again, if constructed hyperloops use solar power, wind power or other renewable energy to power the hyperloop, the emissions fall to practically zero.

All three companies have stated their intention to use renewable energy to power their hyperloops, but it’s not clear at this point how concrete those plans are. Back-of-the-envelope calculations show that it is not difficult to install enough solar on top of the hyperloop to meet all projected demand, even for busy routes.

Moreover, if for whatever reason solar power is deemed infeasible (for example, some designs suggested so far put the tubes on top of each other, which would reduce the surface area available for solar panels), land-based wind turbines today are 2.5-3 megawatts each and it would not take more than a few of these large turbines to power most routes.

Wind power is generally cheaper than solar power, but faces more permitting hurdles, so perhaps a mix of solar and wind power would be ideal, with batteries and/or grid backup for when these renewable sources aren’t available.

The white paper states that “by placing solar panels on top of the tube, the Hyperloop can generate far in excess of the energy needed to operate.” The white paper calculates that 57 megawatts of solar would fit over the tubes of the hyperloop and would be more than enough to power the entire demand (though it also states elsewhere in the paper that as much as 285 megawatts could fit on the hyperloop; this appears to be a discrepancy in the paper, which is described as an alpha study, so not meant to be a final polished product).

Costs

A key feature of the hyperloop concept that Musk outlined is the ability to construct the entire system in highway medians, which means that existing rights of way can be used for much of the planned routes. This reduces the costs substantially when compared to HSR because HSR requires buying significant amounts of new land, and all the legal battles that go with such purchases.

Cost issues seem to be the area that have drawn the most flak from critics. Projected costs for a new technology usually end up being wildly off the mark, and not in the right direction.

Dan Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, offered some early criticism of the concept in 2013: “There’s no way the economics on that would ever work out.”

Michael L. Anderson, a professor at UC Berkeley, was more detailed in his economic critique, stating his view that it would cost about $1,000 per person for the Los Angeles to San Francisco route, based primarily on far, far higher land acquisition costs than the $1 billion that the Musk white paper estimated.

Concerns

One can easily criticize every aspect of the hyperloop as untested and speculative because, well, the entire concept is untested and speculative. But such a criticism would in spirit be unfair because every concept starts out as untested and speculative.

While time will tell whether the features described above pan out, one important set of concerns is not discussed at all in the white paper: what are known as “human factors.”

The white paper pod design will not allow people to stand, walk around or go to the bathroom (there isn’t a bathroom to go to). While a 35-minute trip wouldn’t seem to require these luxuries, when we consider that traveling on the hyperloop will mean sliding at very high speeds through a confined and windowless tube, there does seem to be the potential for freakouts and adverse reactions more generally.

Some designs, however, include larger capsules that would allow standing up, walking and even going to the bathroom, so this is not necessarily a show stopper.

In terms of physiological effects from rapid acceleration and banking, as well as claustrophobia effects, we’ll need to see more concrete designs and testing before such concerns can be fully allayed.

Third-Party Review

At least one third party has completed a detailed analysis of the hyperloop concept: the Suprastudio at UCLA. This engineering studio takes on one major project each year, using students and volunteers to do a deep dive into aspects of major engineering problems.

The Suprastudio partnered with Hyperloop Transporation Technologies, one of the three companies described above, to produce a 158-page white paper after its one-year study and found that the hyperloop concept is sound, with enormous potential, but, of course, many ideas and engineering tasks need to be fleshed out much further.

The white paper shows the impact of various previous transportation leaps, including the Silk Road from China to Istanbul and Route 66 and the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States.

The white paper also includes a comparison of today’s air flight time and potential hyperloop travel times for a cross-country trip, calculating just 2½ hours for a nonstop hyperloop route versus seven hours for a nonstop flight, which includes the check-in, wait times and baggage claim that don’t apply for the hyperloop — at least not to the same degree.

That’s truly impressive if it’s achievable.

Travel time for hyperloop and air travel cross-country. Click to view larger
Travel time for hyperloop and air travel cross-country. (SpaceX graphic)

Suprastudio also scoped the potential for connecting the nation’s megaregions in a single hyperloop grid, showing the potential for truly transformational change from hyperloop implementation.

Suprastudio design for nation-wide mega-region connected hyperloop. Click to view larger
Suprastudio design for nation-wide mega-region connected hyperloop. (SpaceX graphic)

So what will the future transportation system look like? My feeling is that we’ll see hyperloop catch on widely in the United States and around the world if it gets past its initial deployment phase in the next few years, and containing costs will be key to that success.

If it does catch on, it will supplant substantial air travel alternatives.

In the same time period, we may also see a huge increase in driving if autonomous cars catch on. Autonomous cars will be far slower than hyperloop travel but they will offer far more convenience and personalization, which will — for many people — outweigh the slower travel time.

It will be like having one’s own personal train that can go almost anywhere. The world will indeed be one’s oyster with a combination of large-scale hyperloop networks and autonomous cars.

My next column will look at the potential for solar-powered trains to green up our transportation and get us off oil.

— Tam Hunt is a lawyer and writer based in Santa Barbara and Hilo, Hawaii. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click here to get started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.



Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >