Transport | Is the hyperloop doomed?

The dream transport has been around for more than 150 years: in the 1870s, a test device used a pneumatic vacuum tube to propel people under Manhattan from Warren Street to Murray Street.

Posted at 4:00 p.m.

Eric A.TAUB
The New York Times

In the 2010s, an improved version of vacuum tube technology, called hyperloop, promised to transport people not just blocks away, but from city to city at speeds rivaling those of air travel. , by means of magnetic levitation nacelles moving at more than 1000 km/h.

Yet while companies have raked in hundreds of millions of dollars to design and build hyperloop systems — with projects in India, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and the United States — the technology remains an aspiration.

The concept received a boost in November 2020, when Virgin Hyperloop (then known as Hyperloop One) became the first company to move people using the technology. At its hyperloop test facility outside Las Vegas, two employees traveled in a life-size vacuum tube at 172 km/h on a 500-meter test track. Although it was a long way from the promise of a speed of 965 km/h, the test, according to company executives at the time, proved that the system could work.

However, barely a year later, the company retracted and scaled back its ambitions. Company CEO Jay Walder left the company in February 2021; Josh Giegel, his successor as CEO and co-founder of the company, followed last October. And in January, Virgin Hyperloop laid off half its staff (more than 100 employees), halted development of a certification center in West Virginia, shelved development of a route in India, and directed its focus on freight transportation (Virgin Hyperloop did not respond to multiple interview requests).

The downsizing and shift in corporate focus are emblematic of the challenges facing the hyperloop industry, transportation analysts say.

“Time after time you see technological innovations that attract a lot of investment, and you can make a lot of money during the hype cycle,” said Juan Matute, deputy director of the Institute for Transportation Studies. at UCLA. However, the technology does not anticipate the significant technical challenges of creating an entirely new infrastructure. “Then the interest wanes,” Mr. Matute said.

Obstacles

While these challenges may eventually be resolved, some industry observers believe regulatory, financial and political hurdles could doom the hyperloop as a viable high-speed alternative to air travel.

The main obstacle: while new types of transport like electric vehicles can easily be integrated into the existing road network, a hyperloop system would require the creation of a complete infrastructure.

This means building systems of tubes and stations for miles, acquiring rights of way, adhering to government regulations and standards, and avoiding altering the ecology along the routes.

A number of hyperloop companies continue to work on creating viable systems. In some cases, the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed progress as governments turn to more pressing issues. This is why Virgin Hyperloop has halted work on its project in India, said a spokesperson for DP World, a global supply chain logistics company, majority owner of Virgin Hyperloop.

Stopping the project was “more of a regulatory and political issue. They have changed priorities,” said Daniel Van Otterdijk, group communications director for DP World.

Toronto-based TransPod had planned to build a scaled-down hyperloop test track in Limoges, France by 2019, but that was delayed; construction has begun, said Sébastien Gendron, CEO and co-founder of the company. “The plan is to be three kilometers long, he said, but it could be shorter. »

Development in Canada

The company is also planning a surface system linking Calgary and Edmonton airports. The first phase will consist of a five-kilometre test track from Edmonton. The company expects it to be completed by 2025, followed by a two-year certification process, which will allow it to begin construction through Calgary in 2027.

The company envisions a system that will be able to transport goods and, eventually, people.

It would be stupid not to have a system for passengers.

Sébastien Gendron, CEO and co-founder of TransPod

Mr. Gendron acknowledges that funding remains a major obstacle.

“Our biggest challenge has been access to capital,” said Mr. Gendron. The company needs US$550 million for construction and US$300 million for operation. Government buy-in was also a stumbling block. “Our world is risk averse,” he said.

Los Angeles-based Hyperloop TT had still in 2019 promoted its work building a system in the United Arab Emirates, but it has moved on to other projects, said Andrés De León, its CEO.

Its most advanced U.S. project is planned in the Great Lakes region, where the company is seeking private funds to conduct a two-year environmental study before attempting to build the road.

The company also hopes to win the right to plan a system between the Italian cities of Venice and Padua. If it wins the contract, it will first build a 10-kilometre test track, at a cost of 800 million euros (around C$1 billion), over a three-year period, but the construction of this track will only begin after a two-year feasibility study has been completed.

The hyperloop for passengers, a major challenge

“We need to advance a system that moves passengers, light cargo and containers in parallel,” De León said. “We see a huge opportunity in freight, as air travel is 10 times more expensive than hyperloop. »

Indeed, a viable passenger-centric system would cost considerably more than a freight-centric system. With people on board, track curves should be smoother to avoid discomfort, and safety safeguards should be paramount to ensure that sabotage or system failure in the tube does not cause loss of catastrophic pressure or lack of oxygen for people traveling.

“Making the hyperloop work for people is a really big hurdle,” said Hugh Hunt, professor of dynamic and vibration engineering at the University of Cambridge. “It cost 10 times more to land people on the moon than to send an unmanned spacecraft. »

Others disagree on the value of creating a freight transportation system using hyperloop technology. Virgin Hyperloop’s decision not to focus on developing a passenger transportation system instead of a freight system was a strategic mistake, said Walder, who had led the MTA in New York and Transport for London before joining the company.

“Can we create a passenger hyperloop system in 10 years? Probably not,” he said. “But it’s not that compelling to create a system for freight. The benefits are much more limited. »

Improve what already exists?

Others see a hyperloop system designed purely for freight transport as a solution in search of a problem.

“I don’t know of a case where freight is so urgent,” said Carlo van de Weijer, director of smart mobility at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. “Most shipments take two and a half weeks to come from China. Why does it suddenly have to be transported somewhere in 10 minutes? We are perfectly satisfied with a truck that travels at 80 km/h. »

Mr Van de Weijer believes that the “tremendous” infrastructure costs associated with the hyperloop – including the construction of tubes, tunnels and pillars – do not justify the expense.

“If you build two kilometers of rails, you can do two kilometers,” he said. “If you build two kilometers of an airplane runway, you can go around the world. Instead of creating an entirely new system, he said, industry players should improve existing high-speed transport.

“One day we will have sustainable fuels for aircraft,” he added. “Saying we should build a hyperloop system is like saying that because Netflix streaming uses too much power, we should invest in VCRs. We should make streaming more efficient. »

This article was originally published in The New York Times.

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