London to Edinburgh in 50 minutes: A look into the Hyperloop story
Four years on from encouraging start-ups across the world to take on his futuristic ideas for a “fifth mode of transport”, it appears as if Elon Musk is back in the loop. The Silicon Valley titan has confirmed that his infrastructure and tunnelling firm, The Boring Company, is working on their own version of the Hyperloop – the high-speed transport system poised to be faster than trains, safer than cars and more environmentally-friendly than aircraft.
With his Hyperloop story now seemingly going full circle, we take a look at the history behind the eagerly-anticipated technology and what it could mean for the future of transport as we know it.
Who is engineering the technology?
Since Musk abandoned his own pursuit of the idea, there have been a growing number of companies looking to make the Hyperloop a reality; most notably, companies like Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. Just last month, the former had achieved a major feat at their Nevada test site, with the pod reaching speeds of up to 192 mph and producing over 3,000 bhp. Hyperloop One hopes to reach speeds closer to 250 mph under controlled testing in Nevada, but believe that it could go up to 500 mph on a long-distance track.
With much of the demand for Hyperloop development coming from outside of the US, Hyperloop One has released proposed routes that have been added to the mix. Just some of those include:
What had been unusual is that up until recently, China had stayed relatively clear of the prospect of a Hyperloop of their own. However, never one to miss an opportunity, the country has now revealed that their aerospace agency has been researching the possibility of a "high-speed flying train" that will reach top speeds of 2,485 mph. The technology will work similarly to that of Musk's system and could even run along its touted modern-day Silk Road.
Since receiving “verbal government approval” to dig a Hyperloop tunnel between New York and Washington DC in July, speculation had been growing as to whether Musk and The Boring Company would reintroduce themselves into the fold sooner rather than later. This month, a spokesperson for the company confirmed to WIRED that:
“At The Boring Company, we plan to build low-cost, fast-to-dig tunnels that will house new high-speed transportation systems. Most will be standard pressurised tunnels with electric skates going 125+ mph. For long-distance routes in straight lines, such as NY to DC, it will make sense to use pressurised pods in a depressurised tunnel to allow speeds up to approximately 600+ mph (aka Hyperloop).”
Encouraging or increasing competition?
Though Musk had originally dropped his own development of the Hyperloop, his company, Space X, has been encouraging innovation through the hosting of design competitions since 2015. Teams, like HYPED from the University of Edinburgh, were invited to help accelerate the development of functional prototypes through a series of challenges, which culminated at the end of August after a group of German students were selected as the winners on Weekend II.
However, with The Boring Company now sharing its involvement in developing their own version of Hyperloop, theories are that Musk could snuff out the likes of Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. Dirk Ahlborn, CEO at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, told WIRED:
“You would have at least wanted Musk to say, ‘OK guys, how can we do this together?’ or ‘How can I help?’, rather than saying ‘Hey, I’m just gonna do it, thank you for making this known worldwide even more than it was before and showing the progress and making sure that people believe in it.”
What has become apparent is that Musk’s renewed involvement could be down to others not moving fast enough. This was outlined in his white paper at the time of publishing, and the spokesperson for The Boring Company stated in their announcement that “While we’re encouraged that others are making some progress, we would like to accelerate the development of this technology as fast as possible.”
While the likes of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies do not appear to be too impressed with the news, others aren’t that worried. It’s clear to see that the considerable attention and financial support that Hyperloop projects have received in recent years is thanks in part to Musk’s encouragement, and it’s hard to deny that with more people involved, the capital will flow and significant progress can be made amongst all parties.
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A glance into the future
With rapid progress on the design and engineering continuing, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the first functioning Hyperloop systems in the world by 2021. This could pave the way for greater connections between some of the biggest cities in the world, benefiting both passengers and businesses alike. While passengers will find the times taken on their personal journeys cut down to a fraction of what they are currently, businesses could instantly reap the benefits of reduced product lead times and improved efficiency. On top of this, development of Hyperloop’s could mean both an economic and cultural boom for some of the most obscure towns and cities in the world, where diversified development will appeal to a wider range of people.
Once introduced, the pods could bring a whole host of environmental benefits. According to researchers at the Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, a Hyperloop in Germany could avoid emitting up to 140,000 tonnes of CO2 each year and produce up to €900m (£805m) of value in reduced pollution, accidents and congestion – equal to a third of its estimated €2.7bn initial investment.
While we may not immediately see Hyperloop’s taking shape in the UK, it won’t be long before we see the benefits the transportation can bring. Not only this, but if technology considered this radical can be implemented, who knows what the future of engineering innovation will be!