Hyperloop hype

Last week I attended a breakfast meeting led by a reputable regional transportation advocacy organization representing Research Triangle area businesses titled, “The Possibility of a Hyperloop Future.” It was presented by Virgin Hyperloop One at the snazziest venue around, the Umstead Hotel on the SAS campus in Cary.

I know, I know.  My first thought was, Who doesn’t love a carnival sideshow?  After all, it is not a proven technology, and it has funding strategies no better than tried-and-true mobility modes.  That said, I believe it bears watching as a means—one day perhaps—to augment air travel, rail, and bus.

And anyway, tech hype ahead of its time isn’t always bad.  Even when it eventually fizzles, it stimulates the imagination.

Image result for virgin hyperloop one

First, some level-setting information from The Virgin Hyperloop One website:

“Hyperloop is a new mode of transportation that moves freight and people quickly, safely, on-demand and direct from origin to destination.

”Passengers or cargo are loaded into the hyperloop vehicle and accelerate gradually via electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube.

“The vehicle floats above the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds for long distances due to ultra-low aerodynamic drag.

“Virgin Hyperloop One systems will be built on columns or tunneled below ground to avoid dangerous grade crossings and wildlife. It’s fully autonomous and enclosed, eliminating pilot error and weather hazards. It’s safe and clean, with no direct carbon emissions. Watch this video to get an idea of how hyperloop works.

“We estimate that the top speed for a passenger vehicle or light cargo will be 670 miles per hour or 1080 kilometers per hour. That is 2-3 times faster than high-speed rail and magnetic levitation trains, and 10-15 times faster than traditional rail. The average speed vehicles will travel vary based on the route and customer requirements.

“Virgin Hyperloop One vehicles are propelled using a linear electric motor, which is a straightened-out version of a conventional rotary motor. A conventional electric motor has two primary parts: a stator (the part that stays still) and a rotor (the part that moves or rotates). When voltage is applied to the stator it makes the rotor spin and do the work of, say, spinning a power drill. A proprietary linear electric motor has the same two main parts, however, the rotor doesn’t rotate but instead moves in a straight line along the length of the stator. In the Virgin Hyperloop One system, the stators are mounted to the tube, the rotor is mounted to the pod, and the pod straddles the stators as it accelerates down the tube.

“We’re energy-agnostic. Our system can draw power from whichever energy sources are available along the route. If that means solar and wind, then the entire system is 100% carbon free.

“Capital and operating costs will range widely based on route and application (passenger, cargo) but third parties have concluded that the capital and operational costs of a hyperloop system could be two-thirds that of high-speed rail.”

By the way, Elon Musk is also pursuing hyperloop technology.

Here are my impressions on the hyperloop hoopla from last week:

Overall, while this technology should be watched as a future transportation mode, it is, in my opinion, too far ahead of proof of concept to take seriously now.

For example, how a hyperloop vehicle is made to curve in a reasonable radius while moving in a near-vacuum tube has not been worked out, let alone demonstrated, a fundamental mechanical flaw.

The briefing was really a sophisticated and polished sales pitch by Virgin. That statement, however, doesn’t diminish its value to learning about the technology.

Pitch included the proposition that we haven’t invented a new form of transportation in over 100 years, so it’s time to innovate. Didn’t quite imply rubber-tired transport, rail, and air are so 19th and 20th century quaint as to be nearly useless. In fact, the documentation in the handout states that “Hyperloop is not intended to replace existing ;’traditional’ transportation networks such as highway, bus rapid transit, intercity rail, and air travel [note no mention of light rail, which have me pause]. Evidence shows that generally the introduction of high speed surface transportation complements and enhances existing transportation networks. They do this by alleviating congestion via mode shift; allowing for better connectivity to certain systems (such as air travel) to accommodate suppressed demand for both passenger and freight services; and providing the general public with more choices in the manner in which they travel … .”

Consistent with the brochure narrative, the idea was presented verbally as “complementary to commuter rail” in the Raleigh-Durham corridor with “portals” (stations) at Raleigh downtown, NCSU, RDU, RTP, “Durham near Duke”, Chapel Hill. No mention of Cary either verbally or in the regional map included in the brochure.

Image result for virgin hyperloop one
Note the hyperloop tube is linear.  How to curve has not been been worked out.

Big ugly tubes were shown all above ground in the renderings, but below ground is also possible as inferred by showing renderings of possible underground portals (stations).

They didn’t say so, but I believe they were showing above ground tubes both for reduced cost (cheaper than underground) and especially so that the service can use existing interstate rights of way (center and side) to avoid having to purchase private rights of way.

They didn’t get into feasibility or cost/funding, though the website, as I said above, suggests that “capital and operational costs of a Hyperloop system could be two-thirds that of high-speed rail.” Nailing down the true cost of HSR depends upon many factors, but may be somewhere in the range of $80-150 million/mile, assuming funding sources are available.

The presenters averred the system with 28-person pods running at 671 MPH can carry 10,000 passengers/hour/direction. When you do the math, that’s a 28-person pod launched every 10 seconds to achieve that max capacity. (Okay, shove ’em in! Quick now! Keep ’em moving! Hurry!)

Portals (stations) can be “as close as ten and as far as 100 miles apart.”

The fact that Congress won’t even fund rebuilding our crumbling highways and bridges, with money for transit scarce and super-competitive, was ignored. No slide in the presentation addressed where the money might come from for Hyperloop except to refer to the need for “partners”.

One person asked if Hyperloop might be able to utilize an old rail corridor between Raleigh and Richmond (called the S-Line) to connect Charlotte and Raleigh to Richmond and Washington. I couldn’t help wondering if the questioner was ready to abandon the proven technology of rail for this shiny new thing.  Especially since we have for decades lacked the political will to acquire owner S-Line from the CSX Railroad and to build higher speed rail along it between Washington, Richmond, Raleigh, and Charlotte.

My misgivings aside, the answer to that question was yes, if we built Hyperloop along the S-Line, then folks could do Raleigh to DC in 30 minutes and, it was also mentioned, Raleigh to Atlanta in 45 minutes. At those speeds, and making other assumptions, such as reasonable ticket costs, Hyperloop would sure beat the pants off the huge hassle of flying to Washington.  Flights RDU/DCA on American, for example, are a nightmare, most especially coming home from National.  Flights are often cancelled or at least much delayed, even on bluebird days.  Of course, higher sped rail trains could be a practical ad proven solution along the same S-Line corridor.

As stated above, the Hyperloop system works on vacuum low pressure inside the tube + electro-magnetic propulsion + magnetic levitation to achieve motion and speed. All electric.

Their only video dates to 2017 at the Virgin Hyperloop One test facility in the desert near Las Vegas, but only got to 192 mph after a number of trials. No videos of testing since 2017, which struck me as inauspicious, though the brochure says “as of December, 2018, a full sized pod reached a speed of 240 MPH on their 0.3 mile DevLoop test track near Las Vegas.”  A short 0.3 mile linear test track suggests a great deal more testing needs to be done.

The brochure was customized for our region and includes example routes and benefits which show Raleigh to Chapel Hill in 9 min, 27 sec (top speed of 358 MPH and average of 187 MPH) and Raleigh to Durham in 8 min, 51 sec (top of 314 and average of 181). The table and narrative do not mention Durham to Chapel Hill, but at those speeds, one could travel between Chapel Hill and Durham by backtracking via Raleigh in a total of 19 minutes, which is faster than driving during peak times.

Hyperloop hype is impressive; the reality less so.  The drumbeat for pursuing hyperloop’s unproven technology in my area goes on, as in this interview with Virgin Hyperloop One’s CEO, which was released today.  For now, though, I hope my community stays focused tackling funding challenges and building out regional solutions using conventional bus and rail systems on the ten year horizon we’ve set for ourselves in the Research Triangle. And for me personally I think the smart strategy is to keep up my airline elite statuses and forgo investment in hyperloop companies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s