Elon Musk has started the building revolution for a new train system.
Dubbed Hyperloop, it will allow you to get from London to Edinburgh or LA to San Francisco in under 30 minutes. But what is it and how does it work? Good questions. Musk has likened it to a vacuum tube system in a building used to move documents from place to place. Confused? No worries. Here's everything you need to know about the futuristic train coming from the founder of Tesla and SpaceX.
We also delve into competitor systems, like Virgin Hyperloop One.
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What is Hyperloop?
Hyperloop is essentially a train system that Musk calls "a cross between a Concorde, a railgun, and an air hockey table". It's based on the very high-speed transit (VHST) system proposed in 1972, which combines a magnetic levitation train and a low pressure transit tube. It evolves some of the original ideas of VHST, but it still uses tunnels and pods or capsules to move from place to place.
Musk has likened it to a vacuum tube system in a building used to move documents from place to place.
What speeds have been proposed?
Hyperloop is being proposed as an alternative to short distance air travel, where the system will be much faster than existing rail networks and much cleaner that flight. Hyperloop isn't about going as fast as possible, because you'll have to deal with high G forces when it came to turns, which isn't ideal for passenger travel. Speeds of over 700mph are suggested for journeys.
But there are practical implications that have to be considered on a short stop-start journey, such as the acceleration and deceleration sensation that passengers would go through.
How does Elon Musk's Hyperloop work?
Air bearings or maglev
One of the biggest problems with anything moving is friction, both against surfaces and the environment the pod is moving through. Hyperloop proposes to move away from traditional wheels by using air bearings for pods instead. This will have the pod floating on air. It's similar to maglev, in which the electromagnetic levitation of the train means there is no friction like a traditional train that runs on tracks.
This is how current maglev trains can achieve super speeds, like the 500km/h maglev train in Japan. One Hyperloop proposal, from Virgin Hyperloop One, uses passive magnetic levitation, meaning the magnets are on the trains and work with aluminium track. Current active maglev needs powered tracks with copper coiling, which can be expensive.
Musk's Hyperloop will take this to the next level by traveling through low pressure tubes.
Hyperloop will be built in tunnels that have had some of the air sucked out to lower the pressure. So, like high-altitude flying, there's less resistance against the pod moving through the tunnel, meaning it can be much more energy efficient, which is desirable in any transit system.
The original VHST proposed using a vacuum, but there's an inherent difficulty in creating and maintaining a vacuum in a tunnel that will have things like stations, and any break in the vacuum could potentially render the entire system useless. For Hyperloop, the idea is to lower the air pressure, a job that could be done by regularly placed air pumps.
Low pressure, however, means you still have some air in the tunnels.
The air bearing and passive maglev ideas are designed not only to levitate the pod, but also see the pod moving through the air, rather than pushing the air infront of it and dragging it along behind. The air cushion will see the air pumped from the front of the pod to the rear via these suspension cushions. The tunnels envisioned are metal tubes, elevated as an overground system.
Musk has suggested that solar panels running on the top of the tunnels could generate enough electricity to power the system. It could run as an underground system, too.
When will Elon Musk's Hyperloop arrive?
Hawthorne test track
Musk hasn't yet given a date when we can expect to see Hyperloop up and running, he's merely announced that it will be made.
A one-mile test track built by SpaceX adjacent to Hawthorne, its California headquarters, has been built, and the first successful trial has been carried out. Virgin Hyperloop One plans to send an 8.5-metre long pod down a set of tracks in Nevada. In May 2017, a pod levitated on a separate test track in Nevada for 5.3-seconds and reached 70mph.
The first trial using one of the 8.7-metre passenger pods has now been carried out too. The pod travelled along the 500-metre test track, and reached a speed of 192mph before safely coming to a complete stop.
LA to San Francisco
Planning documents currently propose a route between LA and San Francisco, a 354-mile journey, that would cost around $6 billion in construction. This is based on a passenger-only model, whereas one that can also transport vehicles would be $7.5 billion. This extra expenditure would be worth it since more people could use the system, offering potentially larger returns.
Shervin Pishevar, co-founder and chairman of Virgin Hyperloop One, aims to shuttle passengers and cargo in high-speed pods that are smaller than most planes and trains and designed to depart as often as every 10 seconds. He recently told CNBC: "Hyperloop will be operational, somewhere in the world, by 2020."
New York to DC
Must tweeted in July 2017 that his Boring Company tunnel project has received “verbal [government] approval” to build a Hyperloop that would connect the cities of New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC. He also tweeted more details about the project. The new Hyperloop would only take 29 minutes to travel between New York City and DC, Musk claimed.
Just received verbal govt approval for The Boring Company to build an underground NY-Phil-Balt-DC Hyperloop. NY-DC in 29 mins.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 20, 2017
It would feature “up to a dozen or more” access points via elevator in each city. Keep in mind Musk released his Hyperloop concept as an open-source white paper in 2013. As a result, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is looking into a setup that would link Slovakia, Austria and Hungary. This is the same company that plans to create the five-mile test loop in California by 2018.
Musk has continually talked about his agitation with surface-level transportation. His tunnel project, dubbed the Boring Company, which began as a joke, is Musk's attempt at digging more efficiently. He's working on tunnel-boring machines than can both dig and reinforce tunnels, simultaneously. He also recently announced the completion of the first section of tunnel under Los Angeles.
For sure. First set of tunnels are to alleviate greater LA urban congestion. Will start NY-DC in parallel. Then prob LA-SF and a TX loop.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 20, 2017
Back to the “verbal govt approval": apparently, Musk's Boring Company will dig up the tunnel used for the New York-to-DC route. We've contacted the US Department of Transportation for more information. But based on Musk's tweets, we know work on the New York-to-DC Hyperloop will happen alongside the LA tunnel that's already in progress.
What about Virgin Hyperloop One?
Virgin Hyperloop One is a three-year-old startup out of Los Angeles. It is trying to develop a hyperloop train in order to reinvent transportation. Hyperloop transportation was first introduced by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in 2013 as an open-sourced idea. Virgin Hyperloop One's co-founder, Shervin Pishevar, often credits Musk for the inspiration, though Musk is not involved with Virgin Hyperloop One at all.
Virgin Hyperloop One was previously known as Hyperloop One or Virgin Hyperloop One. In October 2017, Hyperloop One and the Virgin Group announced a strategic partnership, in which Virgin Group had invested Hyperloop One and Richard Branson would join Hyperloop One's board of directors. As a result, Hyperloop One has been rebranded to Virgin Hyperloop One.
How will Virgin Hyperloop One work?
Virgin Hyperloop One's system will be built on columns or tunneled below ground.
It’s fully autonomous and enclosed, eliminating pilot error and weather hazards. It's also clean, with no carbon emissions. And the trains can depart up to several times per minute and can transport passengers and cargo direct to their destination. Many of the technologies Virgin Hyperloop One is currently using have been around for a while, such as linear electric motors, maglev, and vacuum pumps.
Here's how Virgin Hyperloop One describes its system:
"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."
When will Virgin Hyperloop One be ready?
The company has developed a full-scale test track, otherwise called a proprietary electric propulsion system, in North Las Veas. The first open-air propulsion test happened in May 2016, followed by the first full-systems test in May 2017 and Phase 2 testing in July 2017. The company is focused on developing a passenger and mixed-use operational hyperloop transportation system by 2021.
How much will it cost to ride?
According to Virgin Hyperloop One CEO Dirk Ahlborn, the cost of a ticket should be around $30 mark to get a passenger from LA to San Francisco. That, he says, should allow the company to pay back its initial costs in eight years.
Whether this will actually be the price of a ticket remains to be seen.
What will it feel and sound like?
Virgin Hyperloop One said it will feel like you're riding in an elevator or a passenger plane. There will be tolerable G forces, as you will be accelerating and decelerating gradually, but there will be no turbulence. In terms of sound, people on the outside will only hear a "big whoosh". The tubes are constructed out of thick, strong steel and can handle 100 Pa of pressure or more.