This is the first post in a series of three about the evolution of passenger transport locally, regionally, and globally over the next century. The next two will be published over the coming week.
You’ve probably heard about the Hyperloop. Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, made public his concepts for the futuristic transit system eleven days ago, and it has attracted at least as much attention as real megaprojects towards which investors have paid cold, hard cash. First, there was gushing praise and excitement at such a techno-romantic idea, then the critics showed up en masse, armed with those lethal anti-imagination weapons: accounting books and technical data. Who is right? They both are. The Hyperloop proposal itself has flaws, but as an idea, it can tell us a lot about how we might be traveling during the next century.
I won’t bore you with a detailed description of the Hyperloop (I recommend you read Musk’s actual proposal for that), or an involved treatment of its faults (the best I have seen is Alon Levy’s careful analysis over at Pedestrian Observations). Instead, in this and two subsequent posts, I will take you on a tour of possibilities for the future of transportation, and how they might integrate with and transform our society. The Hyperloop’s design offers a nice place to start.
Elon Musk’s inspirations for the Hyperloop appear to have been (merited) frustration with California’s halting, expensive high-speed-rail project, and wanting to seek out a “new mode of transport – a fifth mode after planes, trains, cars and boats” that would be safer, faster, cheaper, more durable, more convenient, and more sustainable than current options. Musk was looking for a “solution for the specific case of high traffic city pairs that are less than about 1500 km or 900 miles apart.” Out of that search came the Hyperloop: a brilliant/crazy mashup of supersonic aircraft, maglev trains, and pneumatic tubes. Passengers on the Hyperloop would ride in streamlined capsules zipping through mostly-evacuated steel tubes at speeds up to 760 miles per hour. A capsule would be propelled by magnetic linear accelerators, similar to those in railguns, and elevated by an air cushion beneath the capsule, like pucks on an air hockey table. Musk’s plan places two parallel tubes on 20 foot tall pillars, stretching from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which (he claims) could be constructed for $6 billion. Capsules would leave every 2 minutes at each end, and would complete the journey in about 35 minutes.
That is fast. And speed, not passenger comfort, is the dominant feature of the Hyperloop, as its design reveals. To go that quickly on the ground demands an enclosed tube, and a capsule in the tube needs a small cross-section to reduce drag. This makes the Hyperloop very narrow—to a fault. Musk’s drawings show the capsules to be cramped, with seats squashed together in two slim rows, separated by a shoulder-high wall, with no opportunity for passengers to move about. (Visit the restroom before boarding!) Also reducing comfort is the speed itself. Going around curves (even ones many kilometers in diameter) at 760 mph creates not-inconsequential g-forces, which are one of the critics’ pet peeves. Consider Alon Levy’s description of the Hyperloop in his post: “It’s not transportation; it’s a barf ride.” Exaggerated, but true. To top off the discomfort, the capsules are also windowless. From an engineering standpoint, including windows on a flight through a solid steel tube does seem silly, but from a perspective of passenger happiness, being stuck in a cramped, windowless, jerking capsule with a couple dozen strangers would be downright claustrophobic for more than 5 minutes or so.
Why make the passengers even a little uncomfortable? Why is it so vital to push the capsules as fast as they can possibly go, and accomplish the Los Angeles to San Francisco journey in 35 minutes? By cutting the top speed in half, a capsule could still complete the trip in about an hour, and jostle its passengers a lot less. However, those same passengers want a high velocity. Not because they like being jostled, but because they are overly busy and obsessed with efficiency—particularly the business travelers to whom the Hyperloop would mostly cater. People are willing to pay more for an on-call cab ride rather than wait for the bus, and they shell out extra cash for preferential treatment at the airport. Speed and efficiency sell, and they, not comfort, have become the critical features of modern transport.
With that in mind, there is a hidden potential in the Hyperloop design that no one—not even Elon Musk—has recognized, as far as I can tell. Musk writes that Hyperloop capsules would leave every two minutes, perhaps as often as every 30 seconds, depending on demand. That’s last-century thinking. Set schedules (like all railways, airlines, and bus systems have) are a relic of a time when communications were much less immediate, and transport systems needed hired human drivers working designated hours. None of that applies to the Hyperloop. Firstly, a Hyperloop capsule doesn’t have and doesn’t need a driver, because it moves through a closed tube in which the only other objects are other capsules moving in the same direction, all controlled by computer. Secondly, the internet is in everyone’s pocket.
Here’s a scenario: It’s 3:44 pm, you’re in Los Angeles, and you need to be in San Francisco at the War Memorial Opera House by 6:00. You pull out your smartphone or tablet, and fire up a Hyperloop app. With a few taps, you request a seat on a capsule arriving in San Francisco at 5:30. The app immediately shows you your options: there’s a capsule leaving at 4:51, another at 4:56, and a third at 5:02. The capsules and departure times are generated by an algorithm based on real-time demand. You choose the 4:56 departure (which has an arrival time of 5:32) and pay for your ticket with a couple more taps. The app is integrated with Uber, so you can automatically have it request a cab at either end of the journey to convey you to and from the Hyperloop stations per your schedule. You’re picked up by a cab at 4:15 and are whisked off to the L.A. Hyperloop station, where you breeze through security and confirm your ticket by bumping your phone or tablet against a data receiver on the boarding platform. An hour later, you are at the Opera House.
That is how the Hyperloop, or any similar transportation system, will probably work. Uber is already employing this app-based method for sleek cab service; it makes even more sense for automated systems with small per-vehicle passenger capacities like the Hyperloop. Our emphasis on speed and efficiency will demand it.
And, in the long run, I imagine that those same prerequisites will demand Hyperloop-like offerings. Make no mistake: the Hyperloop itself—as currently envisioned—will not be built. The critics have serious points, and Elon Musk’s alpha-level design will need to change a lot, or fall dead in the water. But the physics are sound, similar things have been done before, and Musk says that he will “probably” build a working demonstration version of it. So parts of the Hyperloop will almost certainly find their way into future technologies. I fully expect to see magnetically-accelerated, floating capsules for small numbers of passengers (and perhaps small vehicles) zipping back and forth between cities in densely-populated regions, as often as their passengers request them. I doubt they will travel as fast as the Hyperloop would, but they will move significantly faster than current high-speed rail.
These systems won’t be built tomorrow, and probably not even a decade from now. But absolutely within a few decades, if current trends hold. I’m just hoping the capsules have windows.
Image at top: a design sketch of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop transit system. From SpaceX.com