March 17, 2023
At a Glance
- Elon Musk's Hyperloop project seems to be stalling. One clue: The test tunnel in front of a SpaceX facility has been removed.
- Musk's Hyperloop white paper lays out a plan to use an air-bearing system when maglevs offer more benefits.
- Switzerland, U.A.E., South Korea, India, Japan, China and other parts of Europe are ahead of the U.S. in Hyperloop projects.
A decade after tech billionaire Elon Musk floated the idea of building a fifth mode of transportation called the Hyperloop, the project seems to be losing momentum. Last November, an above-ground test tunnel for Hyperloop pods that sat in front of SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California facility was reportedly removed. There is no Hyperloop service in the U.S. today.
First mentioned by Musk to a reporter in 2012, the Hyperloop is a high-speed electric vehicle that carries passengers and travels in a low-pressure environment such as a vacuum tube without touching the walls. It has the potential to accelerate travel between far-flung cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco – normally a five-and-a-half hour drive – in an hour and 15 minutes.
Rendering of Elon Musk's Hyperloop from his 2013 white paper
But this dream has remained unreachable thus far.
“It doesn’t feel like we’re getting any closer,” lamented Jack Phillips, head of infrastructure and mechanical engineering advisor at Texas Guadaloop, which is developing Hyperloop technology. “Unfortunately, the sad reality … is that Hyperloop is not just an engineering problem (to be solved), it’s actually more so, in my opinion, a political and social perception challenge.”
Speaking at SXSW 2023 in Austin, Texas, Phillips cited a number of hurdles: cost, lack of regulations to ensure safety, and availability of other modes of transportation more familiar to people.
Technology also had a part to play. Phillips noted that Musk’s 2013 white paper on the Hyperloop proposed using an air-bearing pneumatic levitation system where air comes through little holes to lift and propel the passenger capsule without touching the tunnel’s walls. This was the same technology that his team at Guadaloop is developing, which won an innovation award from SpaceX in 2017.
However, “in the last several years, the Hyperloop industry has really seen a massive shift all to maglev (magnetic levitation)” instead of air-bearing, he said. That is because maglevs offer more benefits − much bigger ‘air gaps’ between the capsule and the tunnel, higher levitation energy efficiencies and lower maintenance costs. In an air-bearing system, when traveling at high speeds small air gaps get a lot of tear and any small debris would lead to ruptures, needing more repairs or replacements.
But whether maglev or air-bearing, the technology is there to make the Hyperloop a reality, so “why does it feel like we’re still so far away?” Phillips said.
For one, regulations on the Hyperloop have yet to be established since it is new technology. “Hyperloop can’t scale in America because the regulations to do so safely and effectively don’t even exist yet,” he said. Moreover, a complex network of state, city, county and federal agencies have to coordinate on regulating the Hyperloop since it affects communities and the environment.
So rather than dealing with a new technology, government officials have chosen to pursue high-speed rail developments, as incumbent transportation companies lobby lawmakers in Washington, Phillips said. Finally, the “sheer cost” of building the Hyperloop is also a big challenge, he added.
Phillips noted that countries that are going forward in building their own Hyperloops include the U.A.E., China, South Korea, Japan, India and Switzerland.
The Swiss project
Lorenzo Benedetti, R&D director at EuroTube Foundation, a nonprofit Swiss research organization, has a different experience. His group has the backing of the government to build the Hyperloop.
“EuroTube has been recognized by the Swiss government as a national facility of strategic importance,” Benedetti said. “They basically support us in developing this technology because they are realizing that we are getting to a point of no return where (car and rail) traffic … is not manageable anymore and we need to introduce an innovation.”
Also, in Switzerland, the government owns the ground 30 meters below the surface and “they can do whatever they want" such as build Hyperloop tunnels, Benedetti said.
But building even just the testing tunnel is “very expensive,” he said. “Basically we are in this loop of (which comes first, the) chicken or the egg − 'do I spend more money now to develop things that we are not sure will work?' That’s where we stand.”
However, Switzerland needs to maintain and repair its infrastructure at great cost and it does not make sense to rebuild to the same 1960s models instead of upgrading it to, say, smart infrastructure that is more sustainable, Benedetti argued.
EuroTube is proceeding with help from the industry. It is building the AlphaTube test tunnel, which should span 3 kilometers (nearly two miles) by 2.5 meters (eight feet) wide and trains can travel up to 900 kilometers (560 miles) per hour.
"We understand that the need of infrastructure and testing infrastructure is basically the key element that can spark the revolution," Benedetti said.
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