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The Fifth Mode of Transportation

The Fifth Mode of Transportation

Elon Musk (CEO of SpaceX and Tesla), a person who is considered one of the world's foremost multi-taskers, is apparently adding another ambitious project to his overflowing slate. Musk has embarked on a project dubbed Hyperloop, which will allow passengers and cargo to get from London to Edinburgh or LA to San Francisco in under 30 minutes.

But what is it and how does it work? Musk has associated it to a vacuum tube system in a building used to move documents from place to place. The Hyperloop is essentially a train that Musk calls "a cross between a Concorde, a railgun, and an air hockey table". It's based on the very high-speed transit (VHST) system proposed in the 60’s, which combines a magnetic levitation train and a low pressure transit tube. It evolves some of the original ideas of VHST, but it still uses tunnels and pods or capsules to move from place to place.

Some of the early designs featured a moving shoe in a pneumatic tube which pulled a train above it. Other more ambitious designs planned to place passengers in a tube. There had been experiments in Britain, efforts in France, and several demonstrations in the United States. The general Hyperloop concept as we know it today, has been around for several decades and the specific technology to make such a system a reality has been in various stages of prototype. Most of those were government agency efforts or scientific efforts and yet no one person had the engineering and business skills to make such a system seem feasible to the general public.

The Hyperloop concept wants to revolutionise the transport system of the present world. Musk initially called the Hyperloop the "Fifth Mode of Transport" and wanted to develop a transportation system that was immune to weather, with the ability to store energy for 24-hour operations whilst also attaining an average speed twice as that of a typical jet. Although speed is one of the main advantages of the Hyperloop, it is also a concern. This is because the speed of over the 700mph mark, together with the resulting G forces, can be a detriment to passengers enduring the trip.

Regardless, there are various companies working on this new means of transport such as Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), Hyperloop One and TransPod. The most notable of these firms is Hyperloop One, the only company to have already begun testing an operational system. In the beginning of August 2017, the Los Angeles-based start-up announced that it had completed the second phase of testing, with its prototype pod vehicle reaching speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour on a test track in Nevada.

While Musk has hinted that a vacuum-sealed tunnel that can whizz passengers from New York to Philadelphia to Baltimore to Washington DC has been given “verbal" approval by the US government, it remains to be seen whether the Hyperloop will eventually materialise into a fully-fledged metro system, let alone a global transportation network. Plans still rely on proving that the technology is viable, and getting the all-important permissions to actually dig tunnels, which in itself is typically a long and time consuming task.

Experts from NASA, the US Department of Transport and Hamburg University agree that, after crunching the numbers, the theoretical technology could be a viable, cheaper and a greener alternative to short-haul flights as well as long truck journeys. However, others have pointed to the likely cost of building a system, particularly underground, being significantly higher than current estimates unless radical improvements in tunnelling technology are developed.

One cannot deny the exciting aspects of such a transportation concept but the fact remains that transport systems in general can be notoriously unfeasible financially, despite obvious advantages in their usage. With this in mind, it could well point to any successful Hyperloop system likely relying on a government subsidy or public/private investment.


Jonathan Mizzi is manager of the Deloitte Digital Data Centre. For more information, please click here