004 / The Fifth Mode / Part 2 of 2
By Khaled Abou Alfa • Published May 2019
This is the second part of our series on Hyperloop. The first part covered the history of Hyperloop and infrastructure.
We have planes, trains, automobiles and boats. What if there was a fifth mode. I have a name for it, called the Hyperloop.
— Elon Musk
Credit for the invention of the telephone, introduced around 1876, remains in dispute. One fact that is not in dispute is that Alexander Graham Bell took this innovation and made it accessible to millions. Millions however never receive this particular gift of communication. In countries that still struggle to provide clean water1, cabled telephony and the infrastructure necessary is deemed an expensive luxury.
More than 100 years after the telephone’s introduction, the world bank estimated that in 2009, Africans ‘enjoyed’ 3 landlines per 100 people. In contrast, by 2015 an estimated 67% of Africans (a population of around 1.2 billion people) now own a mobile phone. Mobile phone technology has allowed countries to leapfrog forward, bypassing cabled technology. This concept of leapfrogging an existing technology is appealing to many lagging nations. Hyperloop is positioned as the leapfrog technology for mass transportation. While it doesn’t justify years of governmental complacency, it does provide a different story. The story shifts from one that is about missing out, to one that claims it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because we are now in a position to bring a more modern way of transportation. A better way of transportation. Except we’re not in that position at all. The reality is we are years, even decades away from anything that resembles a real Hyperloop. There are some rays of optimism to enjoy, if you look close enough. The needle has moved forward, although not in the manner that was original intended.
As established in part 1 of this series on Hyperloop, the infrastructure for Hyperloop is by far the more expensive component in the system. To keep Hyperloop commercially viable, reducing the cost of the infrastructure as much as possible is essential. To help achieve this, the design of the pods will need to operate within several constraints:
- The smaller the diameter of the tunnel, the cheaper (and viable) Hyperloop becomes. The pods will need to cram a great deal within this limited space available. Propulsion systems, passengers, cooling or heating and batteries.
- The pods must rely on a form of vacuum environment within the tube/tunnel - otherwise it’s not Hyperloop.
- To reduce the infrastructure complexity (and cost), but the tube must remain simple. The tube can contain some form of rail, this should remain a passive element, rather than an active one.
- The pods will need to be capable of propelling themselves throughout the length of a journey.
To operate within the above constraints, there are two schools of thought about levitation. The first involves the use of no-contact levitation, the second requires the use of wheels. Levitation depends on new technologies to be developed. Wheeled technology requires existing technology to be repurposed in a more specific manner.
The ambitious aim is to follow the analogy that Hyperloop pods are wingless aeroplanes inside a tube on the ground, as far as possible. Levitating the pods would maximise the capabilities of the infrastructure, as it would be wasteful not to. By minimising the friction and energy used, the pods would then be able to travel longer distances. To that end there are two principal2 methods to consider:
- Air bearings
- Magnetic levitation
Air BearingsAir bearings (or air skis) and how this technology could integrate in a tubed transportation system, was Alpha’s technical gift. The last 6 years has shown that this option is not a viable one. The few built prototypes have not been a showcase of the technology. We have been here before, when this technology was first proposed for mass transportation. In the 1960s and 70s, the predecessor to the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) was the Aérotrain project. This project shared some true Hyperloop DNA, as it operated on an elevated track and attempted to wield the power of air. The technology was abandoned, as the reality set in that the technology was not suited for the application 3. The only ‘success’ this technology has had in the Hyperloop era, is the student Hyperloop team out of the University of Texas, Gaudaloop. Partnered with Airfloat, the team won the innovation award in the 2018 Hyperloop Pod competition. Their designs are unlikely to scale.
We have devoted enough time and energy in trying to shoehorn this technology into this application. Like a square peg in a round hole, it just doesn’t fit.
Magnetic LevitationWith air bearings eliminated, attention turned to Maglev to deliver the same perceived benefits. While ambitious, Maglev is a more viable mass transportation technology than air bearings. A traditional Maglev system would not be economically viable within Hyperloop. This then meant that developing Hyperloop means adding a brand new layer of complexity. That is, using the concepts of Maglev but constrain as much of the technology within the pods themselves. The theory being to leave as little as necessary within the track itself. The issue is that the technology has its own demons to overcome, even before Hyperloop’s requirements. Maglev technology has been in active development for over 40 years, yet it’s currently in operation in only three countries (Japan, China and South Korea). The benefits provided through the use of the system (lower maintenance, high speeds) is not worth the price that comes with it. The benefits are not compelling enough which is evident by the general lack of adoption.
Of the companies developing Hyperloop, only Hyperloop One have demonstrated their proposed solution, across two public tests. While encouraging, the last one was 2 years ago. Since then there has been scant progress on display. In fairness to Hyperloop One at least they’ve got this far. All the other incumbents (Hyperloop TT, Transpod) haven’t even passed this milestone, their ‘systems’ are words on a page. If this system was simple to produce then it would have been created and replicated decades ago. The engineering teams have gone from a virtually impossible solution to an infinitely difficult one.
Hyperloop Pod Competition
There are a few ways one can consider the Hyperloop competition Musk (& SpaceX) launched in June 2015:
- An altruistic exercise meant to put some new thoughts and ideas into the Hyperloop space.
- A selfish exercise to ensure his contribution to Hyperloop isn’t limited to a new name.
- A savy move to utilise youthful energy and ideas that can mined.
- A combination or all the above.
Giving students a platform to test their designs against each other is a great way to try different ideas. The standout success has been the WARR Hyperloop project (now rebranded as TUM Hyperloop). While significantly further ahead of the competition, how their technology will develop commercially remains to be seen. Bloomberg reported that SpaceX have requested all rights for the use of any technology that it deems useful, without compensation4. The graph below provides an overview of the sum total of all recorded Hyperloop public tests both from academic and commercial entities. Interpretation of these results will depend on whether you are a glass half full or half empty type of person. It’s either an encouraging trend for the future or underlines the little progress that has been made.
Wheels and Motors
Magnetic levitation (active or passive), while ‘futurist’ technology, cannot deliver Hyperloop today. Wheels can deliver, because they work (even this guy agrees). Tested in the harshest of environments, wheels have traveled at speeds only dreamed by Hyperloop. The future of Hyperloop has only recently considered this option in a serious manner. The most level-headed resource of information on wheeled designs (on the internet at least) is the work of Richard Macfarlane5. While a wheeled solution may seem un-futuristic, this view is myopic. The combination of using a vacuum, automated pods, travelling at speeds that exceed those of HSR, in an energy efficient manner, would dispel that perception.
If the wheel is humanity’s most important invention, then the induction motor is one of the most important in modern history. It kickstarted the industrial revolution and continues to form an integral part of our transportation future. The true power of this technology is now becoming more known as their use proliferates in electric vehicles. The perception has changed where electric vehicles are acknowledged as the future - it was deemed the far and distant future. This shift hasn’t escaped those active in the Hyperloop space. There are no international standard that defines the required speeds of HSR. The accepted speeds range between 200-250km/h (120-160mph). Repurposing EV technology in a manner that suits a new transport topology may not reach the heady speeds envisaged for Hyperloop but they can beat the incumbent. Unveiled at the Geneva motor show in March 2019, the most powerful road car is the Pininfarina Battista Hypercar. This is an electric car capable of reaching 350km/h (217mph). The Tesla Roadster 2.0 (released date in 2020) with a base model configuration will achieve over 400km/h (250mph). This underlines how the technology continues to mature while producing fast, efficient electric vehicles with ever increasing range. This is current technology, imagine then what the next 10 years in this field could produce. It is conceivable for electric, wheeled pods to reach speeds of 400-500km/h (250-300mph) to begin with and increase from there.
PivotsIt’s been over 6 years since the launch of the Hyperloop idea. How much closer are we to finally arriving at a station, buying a ticket and being whisked away to our destination? In the manner originally imagined, likely never. Hyperloop project will need to navigate economic, technological, regulatory and social obstacles. The technology has not progressed in a meaningful manner, while the real challenges lie ahead. None of the other factors have progressed either.
A pivot on the concept of Hyperloop looks more achievable. To that end, the recently announced DC Baltimore Loop system is a small cause for celebration. The proposal is for a 56km (35 mile) route, using autonomous electrical vehicle in dedicated tunnels, travelling at 240km/h (150mph). The journey would take 15 minutes. There are similar exercises being developed around the world. Containing the concept, with the ability to extend beyond its humble beginnings, could hopefully prove to be a shrewd move.
We may not achieve a fifth mode, in the purest sense, for a long while. This may disappoint some, however starting small and delivering will ensure we remain hopeful. Hopeful for a future that includes a new and sustainable method for mass transportation.
A combination of methods is possible. Using wheels in a similar way to how an aeroplane, this could transition to one of the other two types of levitation. ↩︎
Trusting Bloomberg as the sole source comes with a caveat. Bloomberg reported ‘The Big Hack’ new story about security breaches across major tech companies. That report has been debunked and Bloomberg has never apologised or retracted their statements. The subject of rights ownership wasn’t reported by other news outlets (that didn’t link back to the Bloomberg report). ↩︎