November 9th, 2020 by Steve Hanley
Virgin Hyperloop, the company owned by Richard Branson that is working to make Elon Musk’s hyperloop dream a reality, sent two human passengers down its 500 meter long test track in the desert outside Las Vegas, Nevada on Sunday afternoon. During the journey, chief technology officer and co-founder, Josh Giegel, and Sara Luchian, its head of passenger experience, reached a speed of 100 mph in the partial vacuum conditions inside the 3.3 meter wide tunnel.
It was one of those “small step….giant leap” type moments — the first time in history human beings had traveled through a low pressure tube inside a hermetically sealed, magnetically levitated, electrically powered chamber. It helped prove the hyperloop concept is technically feasible but did nothing to determine whether the idea will be commercially viable.
“No one has done anything close to what we’re talking about right now,” Jay Walder, CEO of Virgin Hyperloop, told The Verge. “This is a full scale, working hyperloop that is not just going to run in a vacuum environment but is going to have a person in it. No one has come close to doing it.” The company says it has already conducted 400 tests of the system with no human passengers aboard.
The promise of hyperloop transportation is that it could supplant air travel and all its nasty emissions, long check in lines, and cattle car seating. In theory, hyperloop stations will whisk us from city center to city center as fast as a modern airliner, no long jaunts to and from a distant airport required. Steely Dan envisioned it all in its far sighted song IGY in 1982: “On that train all graphite and glitter. Undersea by rail. 90 minutes for New York to Paris. Well, by 76 we’ll be A-OK.”
“For the past few years, the Virgin Hyperloop team has been working on turning its ground breaking technology into reality,” Richard Branson, said in a press release. “With today’s successful test, we have shown that this spirit of innovation will in fact change the way people everywhere live, work, and travel in the years to come.”
Giegel and Luchian traveled inside the newly unveiled XP-2 two seater designed by Bjarke Ingels Group and Kilo Design, The pod was custom built with occupant safety and comfort in mind. While the production vehicle will be larger and seat up to 28 passengers, the purpose of the XP-2 is to demonstrate passengers can travel safely inside a hyperloop vehicle. With the system operating in a partial vacuum, aerodynamic drag is greatly reduced and speeds of 700 mph or more are considered possible.
“Hyperloop is about so much more than the technology. It’s about what it enables,” said Luchian. “To me, the passenger experience ties it all together. And what better way to design the future than to actually experience it first-hand?” She tells the New York Times that even though the G-forces on the pod during the acceleration and deceleration phases were three times those of a commercial airliner, “It was much smoother than I expected.” Unlike an airplane, there were no lateral forces that would cause the pod to sway, she said.
Is The Hyperloop Safe?
Having undergone a rigorous and exhaustive safety process, the XP-2 vehicle demonstrates many of the safety-critical systems that will be found on a commercial hyperloop system and is equipped with a state-of-the-art control system that can detect off-nominal states and rapidly trigger appropriate emergency responses, the company says.
“I can’t tell you how often I get asked ‘is hyperloop safe?,’” said Jay Walder, CEO of Virgin Hyperloop. “With today’s passenger testing, we have successfully answered this question, demonstrating that not only can Virgin Hyperloop safely put a person in a pod in a vacuum environment, but that the company has a thoughtful approach to safety which has been validated by an independent third party.”
Walder is very knowledgeable about transportation systems. He has previously served as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City and Transport for London. “The U.S. Interstate Highway System, which began in 1956, cannot be the end of our imagination in terms of how we move around,” he says. With hyperloop, “we can have a fundamentally different transportation system.”
Last month, Virgin Hyperloop announced it will build a $500 million certification center in West Virginia, where it will focus on testing, developing, and validating its technology. Also recently, the US Department of Transportation announced a regulatory plan for hyperloop systems, which may help accelerate interest in building actual systems.
Constantine Samaras, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, tells The Verge, “A hyperloop vehicle will travel much faster than high speed rail, maybe even reaching 760 mph. Maintaining safety at such high speeds is very important and all of the unforeseen disasters need to be engineered into the system. An earthquake? The vacuum tube breaks? The train somehow punches through the tube? At such high speeds, these events amplify the danger, and so safety has to be paramount.”
How Much Is This All Gonna Cost?
As of this moment, no one know how much it would cost to actually build a hyperloop systems. Leaked financial documents in 2016 suggested a hyperloop would cost between $84 million and $121 million per mile. That is significantly more than the high speed rail proposals currently floating around, which themselves have evoked howls of protest from the same fiscal conservatives who see nothing wrong with blowing up the federal budget to enrich their wealthy friends.
Building a hyperloop above ground would involve enormous sums of money to obtain rights of way. Elon Musk thinks tunneling underground is the way to avoid such land acquisition costs but it’s one thing to dig a tunnel from SpaceX headquarters to Dodger Stadium and quite another to dig one under the Atlantic Ocean or through the Rocky Mountains.
There are other technical and practical considerations. Once a hyperloop begins a journey, it must first enter a depressurization chamber. When it arrives at a station, it must undergo a repressurization process. If the pods are to carry only 28 passengers, the through put for the entire system will need to be enormous in order to transport enough passengers to make the whole idea economically viable. Passengers would have to embark and disembark with almost robot-like precision for the process to work. That’s why some observers suggest the hyperloop idea makes more sense for carrying freight than humans.
Giegel, who once started a hyperloop company in his garage, was ecstatic about the successful test. He told The Verge, “I think a long time from now, this moment, this thing in the desert that wouldn’t have existed unless we put it here, is going to be that spot where people can look and say, ‘that was a really big idea, it was a really risky idea, but they came, they did it, and they made it successful.’” After all, people pooh poohed the Wright Brothers after their accomplishment on the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. The future is a very tricky thing to predict with any degree of accuracy.
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