Hyperloop - The Story So Far
Michael Alba posted on July 31, 2017 |
From Elon Musk to Hyperloop One, we review the progress on the fifth mode of transportation.
In a vision of what may come, this rendering depicts a Hyperloop running alongside the Golden Gate Bridge. (Image courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.)
In a vision of what may come, this rendering depicts a Hyperloop running alongside the Golden Gate Bridge. (Image courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.)
Earlier this year, at a test track in the Nevada desert, the world’s first full-scale, full systems test of a Hyperloop was successfully completed by Hyperloop One. For those who’ve been following the Hyperloop story thus far, this will register as a pretty exciting milestone. But for those who think Hyperloops is a type of breakfast cereal, now is a perfect time to get caught up on the Hyperloop hype.

From the musings of a brilliant billionaire to the full-fledged demonstration of humanity’s next mode of transportation, the Hyperloop has come a long way in a short time.


Hyperloop Origins

Elon Musk in 2013. (Image courtesy of Dan Taylor/Heisenberg Media.)
Elon Musk in 2013. (Image courtesy of Dan Taylor/Heisenberg Media.)
The story starts with a man who probably needs no introduction: Elon Musk, the engineer/inventor/possible extra-terrestrial behind some of the most disruptive companies in the world. He’s the CEO of Tesla, a car company pioneering the electric vehicle revolution; the CEO and CTO of SpaceX, an aerospace company with the humble goal of making humanity a multi-planetary species; the CEO of Neuralink, a startup that’s essentially trying to build wizard hats for your brain; and he’s involved in many more, like SolarCity, OpenAI, and The Boring Company.

In 2012, after learning of the planned construction of the California High-Speed Rail bullet train that, he argued, was far more expensive and slower than it needed to be, Musk did what he does best: he thought outside the box. What he came up with was the Hyperloop—neither car nor train, boat nor plane, the Hyperloop was an entirely new mode of transportation, one that took the best of these four modes while shedding their shortcomings.

So, what is a Hyperloop? On its face, it’s a rather simple idea: build two long tubes between Point A and Point B (Los Angeles and San Francisco, in Musk’s original vision), pump out most of the air in the tubes to create a low-pressure environment and propel capsules (or pods) of passengers through the tubes, one in each direction, at speeds exceeding 700 mph.

Illustration of a Hyperloop between LA and San Francisco. (Image from Hyperloop Alpha whitepaper.)
Illustration of a Hyperloop between LA and San Francisco. (Image from Hyperloop Alpha whitepaper.)
Excited by the potential of this idea, Musk and about a dozen engineers from SpaceX and Tesla spent some time playing around with the Hyperloop concept. This culminated in August 2013, when Musk released an alpha design for the LA/San Francisco Hyperloop in the form of a whitepaper titled Hyperloop Alpha.

In this document, Musk makes both the case for a Hyperloop (“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.”) and gives a technical description of the system:

“Hyperloop consists of a low-pressure tube with capsules that are transported at both low and high speeds throughout the length of the tube. The capsules are supported on a cushion of air, featuring pressurized air and aerodynamic lift. The capsules are accelerated via a magnetic linear accelerator affixed at various stations on the low pressure tube with rotors contained in each capsule. Passengers may enter and exit Hyperloop at stations located either at the ends of the tube, or branches along the tube length.”

Musk argued that a Hyperloop would be able to ferry people the 380 miles between LA and San Francisco in under 30 minutes, compared to the 2 hours and 40 minutes of the California High-Speed Rail. Further, Musk claimed, the Hyperloop would be cheaper to build ($6 billion USD versus $68 billion), cheaper to use (~$20 for a one-way ticket versus ~$105) and much more energy efficient (~70 MJ per passenger per journey versus ~870 MJ). 

In fact, according to the paper, the Hyperloop would be cheaper and more energy efficient than any other mode of transport one could take between LA and San Francisco. 

Sketches of Hyperloop pod designs from the Hyperloop Alpha whitepaper. (Image from Hyperloop Alpha whitepaper.)
Sketches of Hyperloop pod designs from the Hyperloop Alpha whitepaper. (Image from Hyperloop Alpha whitepaper.)
Musk considered Hyperloop Alpha to be only a starting point, which is why he released it as an open source design for the engineering community to improve upon. Because of his commitments to SpaceX, Tesla, and the seemingly endless list of other companies he’s involved in, Musk simply didn’t have time to build a Hyperloop himself—by open-sourcing the idea, Musk was hoping to bring it to fruition that much faster.


Hyperloop Hype

Whether due to the appeal of a new fifth mode of transportation, the engineering challenges presented by the Hyperloop, or simply the success that seems to cling to Musk in all his ventures, the Hyperloop struck a chord with a lot of people. Many of those people were engineers, and many of those engineers wanted to contribute to making Hyperloop a reality.

For example, not long after the whitepaper was released, JumpStartFund (an online platform that mixes crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding) founded a company to research the Hyperloop further. This company was named Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), and it remains one of the world’s foremost Hyperloop companies. Because of JumpStartFund’s collaborative model, HTT is really just an assembly of hundreds of engineers—some with day jobs at places like NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX—working together remotely to design a Hyperloop.

Concept of a Hyperloop pod from HTT, comparing its speed to other modes of transportation. (Image courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.)
Concept of a Hyperloop pod from HTT, comparing its speed to other modes of transportation. (Image courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.)
HTT wasn’t the only company that was created to flesh out the Hyperloop concept. In 2014, venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar co-founded Hyperloop Technologies with a former SpaceX engineer, Brogan BamBrogan. Unlike Musk’s original proposal, Hyperloop Technologies formed with an initial focus on transporting cargo rather than people. Today, Hyperloop Technologies goes by a different name: Hyperloop One.

Though Musk wasn’t involved in any of the start-ups vying to build a working Hyperloop, he still wanted to contribute what he could to the emerging technology. In 2015, SpaceX announced it would host a competition to design and build a prototype Hyperloop Pod. Aimed primarily at engineering student groups, the Hyperloop Pod Competition would allow teams to present their designs, and the best pods would have a chance to prove themselves on a one-mile Hyperloop test track next to SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Cali.


The SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition

Conceptual artwork of a Hyperloop track used to announce the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod competition. (Image courtesy of SpaceX.)
Conceptual artwork of a Hyperloop track used to announce the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod competition. (Image courtesy of SpaceX.)
I can’t think of a more inspirational figure for young engineers than Elon Musk, and the response to the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition speaks to that inspiration. Within a week of its announcement, the competition received hundreds of applicants wanting to have a go at designing a Hyperloop Pod, mostly student groups from universities around the world.

After narrowing down the list of applicants to a more-manageable 120-or-so teams, the first stage of the competition was the Design Weekend, held at Texas A&M University in January 2016. The Design Weekend gave each team a chance to present their designs to a team of SpaceX judges, in order to win some cool prizes and advance to the final round.

In the end, 30 teams were selected to build subscale prototypes of their designs, and bring them to the SpaceX test track the following year. Among these finalists was the overall winner of Design Weekend, the MIT Hyperloop team; one Canadian team, Waterloop, representing the University of Waterloo; and the only non-student group, rLoop, a collaborative team organized around the rLoop subreddit.

Promotional video for rLoop’s rPod design.

A year later, in January 2017, the Hyperloop Pod Competition was held at SpaceX’s Hawthorne test track. 27 teams showed up with subscale prototypes of their pod designs, for a weekend full of tests and demonstrations. The three best pods—representing MIT, Munich Technical University, and Delft University of Technology—were given the opportunity to test their pods in the Hyperloop test track. Ultimately, Delft’s pod achieved the highest overall score.

January 29, 2017: The world’s first low pressure Hyperloop run, featuring the pod built by the MIT Hyperloop team.

The Hyperloop Pod Competition proved so successful that SpaceX has announced the Hyperloop Pod Competition II, slated to take place in Hawthorne this summer. This will see a combination of new and returning student teams compete to build the fastest pod—speed is the only criterion under consideration in the new competition.

 

Hyperloop One

Section of the Hyperloop One test track in the Nevada Desert. (Image courtesy of Hyperloop One.)
Section of the Hyperloop One test track in the Nevada Desert. (Image courtesy of Hyperloop One.)
While the SpaceX competition was underway, Hyperloop Technologies—now known as Hyperloop One—was busy on its own Hyperloop design. In fact, Hyperloop One’s President of Engineering Josh Giegel presented a webinar on ENGINEERING.com outlining the four core elements of the company’s design: 
  • The tube (12 feet in diameter, with an internal pressure of one thousandth of an atmosphere)
  • The axial compressor (a challenge, since it needs to function in ultra-low pressure)
  • The method of levitation (at the time, either an air-bearing system or mag lev)
  • The method of propulsion (a linear electric motor, either inductive or synchronous).

To probe its design, Hyperloop One built an open test track in the Nevada Desert. There, in May 2016, the company conducted a Propulsion Open-Air Test (POAT). As this name would suggest, the purpose of the POAT was to test Hyperloop One’s fourth core element: the linear electric motor. Though it didn’t take place in a low-pressure tube, this test proved successful—the test sled accelerated from 0 to 100 mph in about a second.

Video of the POAT on May 11, 2016.

In July 2016, fresh off the momentum of the successful POAT, Hyperloop One opened a 105,000-sqft tooling and fabrication facility in North Las Vegas, Hyperloop One Metalworks. This facility set the stage for the production of a full-system Hyperloop test track, named DevLoop, on which Hyperloop One planned to test the full-scale Hyperloop prototype.

Hyperloop One’s full scale test track, DevLoop, in the Nevada desert. (Image courtesy of Hyperloop One.)
Hyperloop One’s full scale test track, DevLoop, in the Nevada desert. (Image courtesy of Hyperloop One.)
Less than a year later, on May 12, 2017, DevLoop was the scene of the world’s first full system Hyperloop demonstration. In the first phase of Hyperloop One’s planned test program, the company accelerated a 28-foot-long XP-1 pod to a target speed of 70 mph in the low-pressure DevLoop tube, for a total time of 5.3 seconds. This test validated all the prototype components, from the motor to the magnetic levitation to the electromagnetic braking system.
Hyperloop One’s XP-1 pod design (Image courtesy of Hyperloop One.)
Hyperloop One’s XP-1 pod design (Image courtesy of Hyperloop One.)
"Hyperloop One has accomplished what no one has done before by successfully testing the first full scale Hyperloop system,” said Pishevar. “By achieving full vacuum, we essentially invented our own sky in a tube, as if you're flying at 200,000 feet in the air. For the first time in over 100 years, a new mode of transportation has been introduced. Hyperloop is real, and it's here now."


The Future of Hyperloop

And with that, we’ve come full circle—now you know the key players and the major events in the Hyperloop saga.

So, where do things go from here?

For one, Hyperloop One will continue its multiphase testing program with DevLoop. In the next phase, the company hopes to accelerate their XP-1 pod to 250 mph. But the rest is just details—after the historic test in May, the company seems certain that the future of transportation is the Hyperloop.

"Hyperloop One will move people and things faster than at any other time in the world," predicts Pishevar. "With Hyperloop One, the world will be cleaner, safer and faster. It's going to make the world a lot more efficient and will impact the ways our cities work, where we live and where we work. We'll be able to move between cities as if cities themselves are metro stops."

Hyperloop pioneer Elon Musk will remain an interested, if tangential, actor in the Hyperloop drama. Beyond his involvement in SpaceX’s ongoing pod competition, Musk may even open the door to underground Hyperloops, as his new venture The Boring Company is trying to reinvent tunneling the way SpaceX reinvented space flight. Earlier this month, Musk even tweeted that he’s received “verbal govt approval” to build an underground Hyperloop from New York City to Washington DC (exciting, but sparse in detail).

What are your predictions for the future of Hyperloop? Will we ever see a Hyperloop network making cities nothing more than large metro stops? Or will some facet of cold reality bring the Hyperloop idea crashing down?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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