The Hype about Hyperloop

Published: March 6, 2017 - 13:12 Updated: August 4, 2017 - 16:19

As the much-touted transportation technology comes to the shores of India, there are plenty of questions which remain unanswered

Hyperloop could soon be the next big transportation technology. India’s batsmen could do well on bouncy, foreign pitches. Both of these statements could well be fantasies cooked up by excitable cricket fans and tech-enthusiasts. You wouldn’t have felt that way if you were sitting in a room filled with Hyperloop One executives and Indian government officials. On February 28, the team of Hyperloop One pitched their ideas to a room full of Indian bureaucrats and journalists. Among the attendees were Amitabh Kant, the CEO of NITI Aayog and Suresh Prabhu, the Minister of Railways. Prabhu gave a short talk that sounded more like a smarmy homily. Prabhu talked about how the next transportation technology miracle would originate in India, without giving much detail about how such a thing would happen. At the end of said talk, he quipped,” we are not hyper about it (hyperloop).” In his talk, Kant pointed out the fact that India has to leapfrog many development phases if it wanted to compete with the developed world. The former bureaucrat offered to facilitate the Hyperloop One team’s journey in India and said that the country would be happy to enable the growth of the disruptive technology.

Hyperloop came into existence when Elon Musk posted a 57 page white paper on the SpaceX website that proposed a 5th mode of transportation. Passengers would travel in pressurised pods similar to aeroplane cabins, through tubes elevated over the ground with pylons. The tubes would be kept at one-thousandth of the atmospheric pressure at sea level to cut air resistance and at the same time avoiding the engineering challenge of maintaining a complete vacuum. The Hyperloop would work like an air hockey table. Instead of floating on a small cushion of air, the pods are propelled along that cushion using solar-powered electromagnetic pulses. Last year the Hyperloop One team conducted a test to prove that the low pressure-electromagnetic propulsion technology indeed worked. Bystanders who were invited to view the test were witness to a dog-sled being propelled along a half-a-mile track at 300 miles per hour. Using the linear-electric motor that will eventually accelerate a Hyperloop pod, engineers orchestrated what they call a “propulsion open-air test,” or POAT. The test vehicle (nicknamed a “sled”) goes from 0 to 60 mph in about one second, generating a force of about 2.5Gs. The test lasted barely for five seconds, and the world knew that a really fast rollercoaster had been willed into existence.    

What the discussion between Hyperloop One’s CEO Rob Lloyd and Chairman Shervin Pishevar and the Indian government subtly acknowledged was that the biggest hurdle to the development of Hyperloop as a viable transportation technology was land rights and bureaucracy. Acquiring land rights in India for a project like this might be a headache of Kafka-esque proportions. What would make the whole process even trickier is the fact that a high-speed propulsion system like the Hyperloop is not exactly adaptable. Unlike say something like the Delhi Metro whose routes pretty much zig-zag through the city based on land availability, the Hyperloop has to be one straight line for its entire route. As a 1972 study by Rand Corporation explained in detail, high-speed trains can’t make any dramatic turns. Doing so would mean a train full of passengers vomiting in synchronisation. "The most demanding technical problem is that of lateral accelerations. A vehicle travelling at 550 mph cannot undergo sharp turns," the Rand study explained. "This requirement imposes strong constraints on the design of the guideway and would create a great difficulty if one attempted to run the VHST above ground."

High-speed accelerations are particularly jarring, with side-to-side and up-and-down accelerations being particularly egregious sensations for human beings. If you want to minimise the nausea factor, and actually make these high-speed trips comfortable for people to take, you have to take those limitations into account. What this essentially means is that the high-speed propulsion system that Musk proposed can only be built underground. What happens when any of the dozens of towns along the proposed route won't allow tunnelling construction without a stop being placed for them? Building underground tunnels is on any given day an outrageously expensive proposition.

The proposed Hyperloop also refuses to take into account expansion calculations. During hot and cold days the pylons would expand and contract. Expansion joints used for bridges won’t help solve the problem. Any specialised expansion joints if used would require a deployment running into thousands. If any of these expansion joints malfunctions then it would mean utter catastrophe.

There are other hurdles too in the way of this magic technology that is supposed to be the panacea to all of the world’s urban transportation woes. There are the rather glaring limitations. As has often been pointed out there was much that left to be desired in Musk’s 57-page plan. The plan proposed by Musk says that at every 40-50 miles of the network, solar panels would give an extra push to the pods to propel them even further. This plan is undermined by the fact that overcast weather conditions could effectively mean that any such network relying on solar energy would come to a standstill on a day where the sun is not shining in all its glory.

Then there is the obvious reality that projects of this scale are funded by governments, largely because of the scale of investment required. Will Hyperloop ever be able to raise funds for a project whose cost-efficacy is largely unknown? Will it be able to compete with existing plane networks? Probably no. There’s a huge difference between a neat idea that barely exits the realm of fiction and a fully functional economically viable system. Unfortunately, it seems like Hyperloop is the former rather than the latter. Maybe it would be wise to not count one’s chickens before they hatch?