Elon Musk is without a doubt one of the most exciting future-gazers of the moment. He's working on making domestic space travel a reality with his SpaceX project, and he's making electric cars cool with Tesla, while with Neuralink he's looking to get brain-computer interfaces implanted into all of our brains to supplement human intelligence with machine developments. Seriously.
So when he published a white paper on transport (seemingly fueled by rage against the rail system being developed for Los Angeles), the engineering world took notice. The paper was about a ‘new’ method of transportation called Hyperloop, which would make possible human transportation at more than 760 miles per hour.
The hyperloop would manage this feat by transporting us in pods through depressurised tubes, rather like the pneumatic tubes used for transporting mail. Now, this technology obviously isn’t new, and Musk is the first to admit this. In his paper he references the work done by the Rand Corporation and ET3.
The Rand Corporation paper is pretty fascinating, as it was published in 1972, and already refers to this technology as pre-existing. In fact, the idea of passengers being transported using pressure in a tube had been floated as early as 1812. So the idea of "electromagnetically levitated and propelled cars in an evacuated tunnel" has been around for a long time. So why does it only seem to be getting taken seriously now?
Here we’ve rounded up everything you need to know about the Hyperloop, including how it works theoretically, whether it actually does work, who’s building it, and, more importantly, when you’ll be able to ride one.
Hyperloop: what the tube?
So, it’s 2012, and Elon Musk starts talking about a "fifth mode of transport", the idea that would eventually become Hyperloop. That fifth comes after cars, boats, trains, and planes.
A year later he publishes a white paper full of ideas about the future of a mode of transport that uses magnetic levitation in a low-pressure tube. What’s quite revolutionary about this move is that he doesn’t seem to hold a single card close to his chest.
The paper is full of schematics and workings. It starts with a very plain-English opening that's easy to read even if you have no background in technology or engineering. The paper even encourages others to take the lead: “The authors encourage all members of the community to contribute to the Hyperloop design process.”
This heralds the start of the open sourcing of the Hyperloop project. The nature of who actually owns/runs/works on Hyperloop is a interesting, but more about that in a little bit.
Hyperloop: how does it work?
The basic principle outlined in Musk’s paper is that the ‘pods’ would levitate using magnetic levitation, or maglev, a technique that uses magnets to ‘float’ the pods and propel them through the tube.
This propulsion raises a couple of issues. First, when you get up to the speeds that would be required in order for Hyperloop to compete with other high-speed transport modes, the air friction in the tunnel would become so great that the heat would damage the pods – and presumably the passengers inside them. Also, the pressure that would build up in front of the vessel would cause the tunnel to rupture.
This problem is solved by making the tunnel a vacuum – but if you have a tunnel that stretches for hundreds of miles, a single rupture would instantly compromise the vacuum and cause the system to fail. This means the best solution is to massively reduce the pressure, but not make the tunnel an actual vacuum.
But the fact that there is pressure in the tube brings back the second issue above; the faster the pod moves, the greater the pressure build-up ahead of it. Image squeezing a tube of toothpaste with the cap still on.
The proposed solution to this is that the front of the pod will have a fan that pushes the air beneath and behind the vessel, which would have the additional benefit of aiding its levitation by creating an air buffer, similar to the technique used in air hockey to levitate the puck.
Turning corners is an interesting issue too, as when you a mode of transport that travels at speeds close to 1,000mph, turning corners creates massive G-forces. For this reason, the tunnels would need to be straight for most of their length.
In Musk’s paper, he imagines that these tubes would be above ground, and sit on pylons, so would take up a similar amount of ground space as a phone pylon. However there now seems to be a plan to use underground tunnels, dug by Musk’s wittily titled The Boring Company.
Going underground does solve the issue of having to have the real-estate above ground, but raises another issue in terms of obtaining the energy to power the system, as in the original white paper part of the plan for powering Hyperloop was to have solar panels that sit on top of the tubes.
And that part of the plan is particularly interesting, as if the sums are right Hyperloop could actually end up creating more energy than it uses.
Hyperloop: who's making it?
This is where things get interesting, as for most of its existence Hyperloop’s development has been powered by startups. After publishing the white paper, Musk handed over the responsibility by challenging startups to see who could actually bring the technology to market.
The important thing to remember, which admittedly is a little tricky, is that Hyperloop is effectively the name of the product, not the company. Most of the companies have Hyperloop in the title, but there isn't a company that is Hyperloop.
The two main contenders at the moment are Hyperloop One, and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, with the recent addition of Arrivo, which is chaired by ex-Hyperloop One CTO, and ex-SpaceX engineer Brogan BamBrogan. Yes, that’s actually his name.
On top of this, Musk runs a Hyperloop Challenge, where he welcomes students to his Hyperloop test lab in his SpaceX facility in Las Vegas.
Hyperloop One has approached the problem with a ‘make it and show the world it works first’ mentality, creating a number of different test sites and prototypes to show that the technology is not some pie-in-the-sky dream of Musk’s, but a realistic proposal for an alternative mode of transport.
It’s the first company that's managed to get the Hyperloop technology working, and is achieving faster times with each test, but not anything close to the remarkable speeds that the mode of transport promises.
Below you can see the video of its first test, which took place on 12 May 2017. It’s only 24 seconds long, and you need to look closely, but you can see the levitation in action:
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has come at the problem from a slightly different angle.
It was founded by Dick Ahlborn and Bibop Gresta (because apparently everyone who works on the Hyperloop has an amazing name), who issued an interesting call to action. They proposed a crowd-sourcing approach, whereby anyone who worked on the Hyperloop project would get one unit of stock for every hour worked.
That isn’t the end of HTT’s interesting approach to pay. It claims that its Hyperloop technology will be so energy efficient that it will create energy that it will be able to sell. That profit would then be passed on to the user, making Hyperloop free to use.
Mixing things up further, Elon Musk himself has recently announced that his The Boring Company will also be entering the fray. He tweeted that The Boring Company had received “verbal government approval” to dig a Hyperloop tunnel between New York and Washington DC.
When asked by Wired who would be building the Hyperloop system that would use the tunnel, Musk replied “The Boring Company”.
This could potentially cause an upset in the world order of Hyperloop companies; after all, there will presumably be a limited amount of funding and resources that can go into Hyperloop development, and having Musk’s name on a project will undoubtedly be a draw.
Brogan BamBrogan thinks Musk’s decision is a positive one though: “The industry can’t get built by any one company, and to have a heavyweight like Elon put his hat in the ring says a lot of good things,” he says. ”It validates the market and the idea that the tech can create some real value for people.”
Hyperloop: release date
The question on everyone’s lips, of course, is ‘When am I actually going to get to ride the Hyperloop?’ And the answer is… we’re not really sure. It would be easy to look disparagingly at Hyperloop and think that it's never going to actually see the light of day. But given Musk’s track record of getting projects that seem unrealistic to work, we’re quietly hopeful.
Hyperloop One lists a projected date of 2021 on its website for having “three production systems”, although what that means in terms of working transport is unclear. Hyperloop One chief executive Rob Lloyd has claimed that, following and agreement with Dubai, “from a technological point of view, we could have a Hyperloop One system built in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the next five years”.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be one in the UAE in the next five years. The project would need to get costed and assessed first, then constructed. It’s a long way off. That said, Hyperloop One is the first company that has managed to run a successful test with an actual pod in a tube:
Interestingly, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is also setting its sights on the Middle East for its first working vehicle. It has announced that the world’s first working Hyperloop will be in Abu Dhabi. Of course, that claim is dependent on no other company getting there first.
And there’s a very real possibility that, if another company does pip it to the post, Musk himself could be at the helm.
Asked about Musk’s announcement that it would be making a Hyperloop, a spokesperson for The Boring Company said: “[Musk] said at the time [he published the white paper] that he would only seek to commercialize hyperloop if after a few years other companies were not moving quickly enough. While we’re encouraged that others are making some progress, we would like to accelerate the development of this technology as fast as possible.”
That's encouraging news if you really can't wait to hurtle through a tube at close to the speed of sound. We'll be keeping this page updated with all the latest information about the Hyperloop as and when we get it, so keep checking back here.
- Want to know more about the future of transportation? Check out Jon Porter's regular column The Transporter