x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Fancy a commute at 1,200kph? – Hop on board the Hyperloop

Elon Musk, the US entrepreneur and founder of Tesla electric car company, is a busy man but he envisages a rapid transit system that will fire commuters from LA to San Francisco at faster than the speed of sound.

The US billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has urged the public to contribute to his Hyperloop plan for a futuristic transit system that would transport passengers about 600km from Los Angeles to San Francisco in about 35 minutes – and many have already started pitching in.

WhiteClouds, a start-up in Utah, has sketched a model of the scheme using a 3D printer.

“As a company, we’re really interested in technology, and I thought it would be fun and interesting to take what we do every day and make the Hyperloop concept into something real. This really demonstrates the possibilities 3D printing offers,” says the WhiteClouds chief executive Jerry Ropelato.

In addition, EDR, a Connecticut provider of data and workflow applications to the property due diligence industry, has offered to contribute any environmental information needed to complete the Hyperloop’s environmental impact study.

And Ansys, a Pennsylvania-based maker of very high-end stimulation software used to design objects such as planes, trains and cars, is testing a virtual Hyperloop with complex computer software. Mr Musk’s SpaceX company currently uses Ansys software.

The tests have already initiated discussion about the feasibility of the project and have inspired some possible tweaks to Mr Musk’s original plan, including an emphasis on symmetry to facilitate in more even distribution of air pressure within the Hyperloop design.

Under the proposed system, passengers, along with their cars if desired, would occupy elevated aluminium “pods” that would zoom through steel tubes at speeds reaching 1,280kph, faster than the speed of sound.

In comparison, the driving distance between LA and San Francisco is about five hours and 35 minutes. A nonstop flight takes approximately one hour and 15 minutes.

China’s Shanghai Maglev Train, which is currently believed to be the world’s fastest train, has a top operating speed of 430kph. It would take just less than one hour and 20 minutes for the Maglev Train to make a trip of an equivalent distance.

Mr Musk has returned his focus to his already established transportation ventures. He is the co-founder of PayPal, and the founder of commercial space transport firm SpaceX as well as the founder of the electric car maker Tesla Motors.

Abu Dhabi National Energy Company had a 7 per cent stake in Tesla which it sold for US$113 million when it sold its stake in April last year.

At present Mr Musk’s proposed transport system is still on the drawing board but it has been met with a mix of both scepticism and praise.

“I don’t have any plans to execute, because I must remain focused on SpaceX and Tesla,” Mr Musk said recently.

However, it is claimed the project would have less environmental impact than traditional transit systems, be resistant to challenging weather conditions and, importantly in the western United States, be earthquake proof.

“The system is immune to wind, ice, fog and rain. The propulsion system is integrated into the tube and can only accelerate the capsule to speeds that are safe in each section. With human-control error and unpredictable weather removed from the system, very few safety concerns remain,” claims Mr Musk in his 57-page outline of the plan, published in August.

He envisages each capsule carrying up to 28 passengers at a time, departing “on average every two minutes” or “up to every 30 seconds during peak-usage hours”.

The system would transport cars as well, in pods capable of carrying would fit three full-size vehicles each.

The capsules would be mounted atop thin “skis” and, under low pressure, would move inside steel tubes. Magnets and an initial electromagnetic pulse would help propel the pods. The skis would have holes in them, through which air would be pumped, producing an friction-free effect similar to levitation.

“You could have about 70 pods between Los Angeles and San Francisco that leave every 30 seconds. It’s like getting a ride on Space Mountain at Disneyland,” Mr Musk told Bloomberg Businessweek recently.

In another description, Mr Musk refers to the Hyperloop as “a cross between a Concorde, a rail gun and an air-hockey table”.

He says he was inspired to reveal plans for the Hyperloop in response to the approval of the California High-Speed Rail (CHSR) proposal, which in his opinion falls short in terms of speed and cost. The CHSR, headed by the California high-speed rail authority, would travel at speeds reaching 320kph, taking two hours and 40 minutes to move passengers from San Francisco to LA. The approved system also comes with a projected cost of $70 billion.

Mr Musk’s project, in contrast, would cost an estimated $6bn to $10bn.

“When the California ‘high-speed’ rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were, too,” Mr Musk says.

“How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL [Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory] – doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?”

Many supporters of Hyperloop agree.

“I believe that Hyperloop is an exciting innovation. It would certainly ease the financial burden on California taxpayers,” says Rob Barber, the chief executive of EDR.

The Hyperloop concept comes at a time when national railroad companies and at least one private operator are vying to develop faster conventional electric trains.

Globally, countries such as China, Spain, Italy and Germany are expanding their high-speed rail networks. The United Kingdom is planning to build a high-speed north to south connection while Turkey is focused on linking Ankara, Konya and Istanbul.

Here, Saudi Arabia plans to unveil the Haramain High Speed Rail line between Mecca and Medina in 2014 and a GCC-wide rail network is also in the pipeline.

In the US, however, the Acela Express remains as the lone high-speed rail service in operation. CHSR, XPressWest between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and a high-speed line connecting Chicago and St Louis are all in the brainstorming phases but they are quite a long journey away from actually transporting passengers.

Supporters of Hyperloop, meanwhile, are pushing to turn the dream into a reality.