Cars on the highways and byways in and around the world’s largest cities are often bumper-to-bumper any time of day. More than just a major frustration to commuters, this problem impacts the supply chain, specifically one of its trickiest and most costly aspects – last mile delivery.
As a result, some of the wealthiest and most innovative companies on the planet have been looking for solutions to congestion problems. So far, the answer appears (at least partially) to lie underground, where some of these companies plan on digging a series of tunnels for hyperloops that shoot people and cargo through cities at hundreds of miles per hour.
The idea for a hyperloop was born of Elon Musk’s frustration over California’s $68 billion High-Speed Rail project, which he deemed too costly and not forward-thinking enough for a state that is “the home of Silicon Valley and JPL (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory).” In the white paper explaining his plan, Musk described the need for a new form of mass transportation that is “safer, faster, lower cost, more convenient, immune to weather, sustainably self-powering, resistant to earthquakes, (and) not disruptive to those along the route.”
Although hyperloops bear some things in common with railways and subways, they use electromagnetic suspension and vacuum tubes, along with an air compressor on the autonomous pods (in Musk’s original idea) to move the pods through the tube on a cushion of air — similar to a puck moving across an air hockey table. Running electrically, and with solar panels on the tube where it’s above ground, hyperloops offer a form of transportation and shipping that is faster and more sustainable than other forms of ground transportation.
The Boring Company
Despite ideating hyperloops, Musk and his company SpaceX have no plans to develop them commercially. Instead, SpaceX is encouraging innovation by hosting Hyperloop Pod Competitions where engineers and students from around the world attempt to develop the best prototype for a hyperloop.
In 2016, Musk founded the Boring Company with plans of digging tunnels throughout Los Angeles to create loops to alleviate traffic. Loops differ from hyperloops in that they have “electric skates” which transport passengers over shorter distances at around 150 miles per hour — hyperloops’ pods travel upwards of 600 miles per hour.
Tunnels are normally very expensive to construct, but Boring plans on cutting the cost by focusing exclusively on tunnel R&D and decreasing the diameters of the tunnel from the one-lane standard of 28 feet to less than half that. Another matter is getting permits to burrow beneath the city. In November, Boring had to scrap its plan for the Sepulveda tunnel which would have run through west Los Angeles after settling a lawsuit brought forth by the Brentwood Residents Coalition.
Despite the setback, Boring still plans on building other tunnels, including one from downtown Los Angeles to Dodger Stadium — commonly referred to as the “Dugout Loop” — that will transport baseball fans to a game in four minutes for the cost of about $1. Other plans have been made for an East Coast loop connecting Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and another connecting O’Hare International Airport and downtown Chicago.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) is an example of a company that has taken Musk’s original idea for a hyperloop and run with it. So much so that in 2015, the company announced that it had acquired 5 miles of land running adjacent to Interstate 5 in Quay Valley, between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The plan was to create a hyperloop test track along with a new city in the San Joaquin Valley, but it stalled after a developer dropped out of the project.
Despite the setback, HTT has moved forward and secured international contracts to build other hyperloops, partially due to the Vibranium Skin Material they developed for hyperloop capsules. According to HTT, the “new smart material is eight times stronger than aluminum and 10 times stronger than steel alternatives, and transmits critical information regarding temperature, stability, integrity and more, wirelessly and instantly.”
HTT has inked deals to develop hyperloops in Slovakia, Abu Dhabi, France, the Czech Republic, Indonesia, South Korea, India, UAE, Ukraine, and China. In February 2018, HTT agreed to a $1.2 million feasibility study for the Great Lakes Hyperloop, running between Cleveland and Chicago. Later that year, HTT began construction of the first full-scale hyperloop passenger and freight system in the world in Toulouse, France.
Virgin Hyperloop One
Originally founded as Hyperloop One by Shervin Pishevar and Brogan BamBrogan in response to Musk’s aforementioned white paper, the company was rebranded as Virgin Hyperloop One following an investment by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group in 2017. The goal of Virgin Hyperloop One is nothing short of creating a fully functional hyperloop track by 2021.
To accomplish its goal, the company created the Virgin Hyperloop One Global Challenge, which asked cities and regions across the planet to submit hyperloop network proposals — with the winners being the sites of the first completed tracks. The contest, which began in 2016 with 2,600 entrants, concluded in September 2017 with 10 winners.
Virgin Hyperloop One plans to continue examining feasibility plans and developing plans to make the routes a reality. According to Hyperloop One, “The winning routes connect 53 urban centers and nearly 150 million people representing Canada, India, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States. Their combined distance spans 6,628 km (4,121 miles).”
JD.com, China’s e-commerce superpower, has also stepped into the hyperloop game. The company is no stranger to embracing technology, having already established a mostly autonomous factory that packs and ships 200,000 orders per day with only four human staff on hand to service robots.
In the case of JD.com’s loop, the technology will be used to deliver packages to customers in cramped urban spaces. Underground tracks running alongside city pipe corridors will be built to fulfill orders without disturbing the surface world. The first of these “underground logistics systems” is slated to launch in Xiongan, with others surely on the way if it proves successful.
In a corporate blog post, JD.com explains the benefits of employing such technology for freight delivery: “Research shows that freight vehicles have an outsized contribution to urban traffic emissions, and can take up as much as a third of road capacity. With urbanization in China causing intense changes to the environment, creating pollution and causing other disruption to people’s lives, the primary goal of the institute is to design the framework for logistics in urban spaces to be more efficient and environmentally friendly.”
A Loopy Future
The idea of loops and hyperloops has attracted the attention of many of the most innovative thinkers in the world, who continue to enter competitions and create startups looking to be involved in bringing the mode of transportation to the masses. Its speed, sustainability, relatively low cost, and small footprint certainly give it an edge when compared to other forms of public transportation if the technology can be successfully developed.
While it’s not quite the modes of transportation we were promised by The Jetsons, it is an exciting possibility.