Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Inc. has struck a deal with landowners in central California to build the first hyperloop test track in the world. The track will encompass a 5-mile stretch near the busy Interstate 5 highway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The idea for a hyperloop as a mode of transportation was popularized by Elon Musk in his 57-page white paper released to the public in 2013. Musk’s vision is a system that is cheaper and operates much more cleanly than California’s proposed high-speed rail while propelling passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in just 30 minutes.
Hyperloop systems use magnets and fans to push passenger pods through depressurized tubes at very high speeds. While Musk imagined a system that operates at close to 800 mph, the pilot project (expected to break ground in early 2016) will test at a much more modest 200 mph to demonstrate proof of concept and to conduct additional testing on safety. About 100 miles of track is needed in order to reach the 800 mph speed. Nevertheless, this trial is undoubtedly a huge step forward for the hyperloop industry and comes sooner than most expected.
But at What Cost?
The 5-mile pilot project is estimated to cost about $100 million to build, with most of the funding expected to come from an initial public offering (IPO) by Hyperloop Transportation Technologies later this year. With a 400-mile distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco, this system would cost about $8 billion to make the full trip between cities (assuming the costs of building the track and pods stay the same). This is still far lower than the expected costs of California’s high-speed rail, which comes in at a whopping $67.6 billion, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
Working out the Kinks
While hyperloop technology offers tremendous potential for unprecedented low-cost, high-speed transportation, there are still some major hurdles for the industry to overcome. Development costs are expected to be very high for this technology, and those costs are not factored into the $8 billion estimate (considers manufacturing costs only). In order to continue developing the pods, capsules, and tubes to become commercially viable, this industry will need considerable cash.
Perhaps the most obvious concern is the nature of the technology itself. Transporting human beings through capsules at nearly 800 mph has yet to be proven a safe venture, and efforts to reduce the potentially nauseating effects will need to be worked out. Whether or not solar panels on the tubes would generate enough electricity to power the propulsion system is another concern of skeptics, such as Roger Goodall, a maglev train expert and a professor of control systems engineering at the United Kingdom’s Loughborough University. For now, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies looks to prove the doubters wrong; thankfully, we won’t have to wait too long to see the results.