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What is a hyperloop and will it change the world?

Discover whether hyperloop technology is a feasible solution to sustainable transportation.


Travelling from one place to another safely and efficiently has historically been one of the biggest challenges faced by humanity. Pollution caused by modern transport networks is currently an ever-growing problem, and the challenge is set to grow in scale and urgency.

By 2100, the UN projects that the world’s population will stabilise at around 11 billion people. What’s more, an unprecedented proportion of those people will live in the world’s big cities. It’s a phenomenon with a technical name: urbanisation. As a country develops, more and more young people living in the countryside will find work in urban areas. 

Where does transport figure in?

Transport currently accounts for around a quarter of the CO2 emissions produced from energy usage. Of this, three-quarters are constituted by road transport — though aviation’s impact is vastly disproportionate to the number of people it caters for.

It isn’t just global problems like climate change that we need to consider. Built-up city centres suffer from heavy concentrations of traffic. Even if every car were electric and produced zero emissions directly, we’d still be faced with the logistical problem that comes with road transport. 

Cars take up huge amounts of space, and much of the time, we’re not even using them. In the US, the problem is particularly severe. There are around a billion spaces available — four for every vehicle that currently exists. If you’re leaving four of the five seats in your car empty, then the per-capita impact of this is eye-watering.

Much of this space is concentrated in downtown areas, where land values are enormous. If just a bit of it could be reclaimed, the benefits would be considerable. This space could be used for offices, housing or even parkland.

Bringing in clean air zones, as many cities in the UK are beginning to, is only part of the solution. We must also come up with alternative ways of getting around. 

A number of solutions have been proposed to this problem, some of them more ingenious than others. One idea that has received particular attention is the proposed ‘hyperloop’.

What is Hyperloop?

The term ‘hyperloop’ was first coined by Elon Musk in 2012, though its true origins stretch back to the turn of the 20th century and an American engineer named Robert Goddard. Goddard proposed a sealed underground tube, in which a train would be propelled at tremendous speed. 

Musk’s conception of the idea had several advantages over traditionally available forms of transport. An underground carriage of this kind could theoretically travel at hypersonic speed, since it would float above the surface of the track on air-bearings. It would be immune from adverse weather, clean, fast and affordable.

SpaceX isn’t the only company investing in this technology. In late 2020, Virgin Hyperloop conducted a successful test of its technology with human passengers. It’s so far achieved a maximum speed of 240mph, and the creators have decided that it could theoretically reach 670mph — which is faster than the fastest available bullet train.

There’s still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding this proposed game-changer, however. Musk’s guesstimate of around $17m per mile has been disputed by independent analysts and is heavily contingent on advances being made in tunnelling techniques. 

To address this, Musk launched a tunnelling company whose purpose is to lower the cost of creating very long tunnels. Called ‘The Boring Company’, it aims to create tunnelling capability that is faster, cheaper and modular.

As with many projects of this kind, the cost is an ongoing source of contention. Leaked documents in 2016 suggested that the true figure for a 107-mile Bay Area route might come in at closer to $100m per mile. 

Given that conventional rail projects, like the California high-speed route and HS2 in the UK, have a habit of vastly exceeding their original budget, it seems highly likely that this unproven technology will run into budgetary difficulties despite the best efforts of the public relations department of SpaceX.

What are the alternatives?

Critics say that the time, energy and money invested in Hyperloop could be better spent developing existing public transport infrastructure. Fortunately, Hyperloop isn’t the only exciting new transport technology looming on the horizon. Sustainable transport is a whole field of enquiry that is already showing great promise.

Why is sustainable transport important?

As we’ve noted, there are more people occupying the planet than ever before, and they’re mostly found living close together in cities. If these people were to all use traditional gas-guzzling vehicles, we’d run into problems with gridlock and horrendous air pollution. 

Traffic jams aren’t just an environmental issue, however. They’re also a tremendous blight on productivity, mental health and general wellbeing. In LA, commuters can expect to spend around 100 hours per year stuck in traffic. And other big cities aren’t far behind. 

In many cases, these problems arise from a lack of direction and planning. Extra lanes are bolted onto highways, which in turn push more people into cars, which causes more traffic.

What’s needed is a sustainable alternative that’s based on a long-term strategy.

How does transport feature in the UN’s sustainable development goals?

Sustainable development is something that’s crucial to the continued prosperity of the human race, and it’s also something that should inform our ambitions when it comes to transport.

The UN outlines seventeen goals for sustainable development. First set up in 2015, these goals are intended to provide a blueprint for what the world should look like by 2030. 

Several of the goals (most notably 9, 12 and 13) are heavily contingent on reducing human impact on the natural world, with number 11 is explicitly focussing on creating sustainable cities and communities.

Specifically, it’s target 11.2 that’s worth considering. By 2030, signatories must provide transport that’s public, accessible, sustainable, safe and affordable. Transport must be inclusive of everyone, regardless of sex, age and disability. In other words, it’s not enough to have a fantastic transport system if wheelchair users can’t access it.

Sustainable transport and urban mobility

Perhaps the most exciting prospect looming in the medium-term is that of driverless cars. These would have a number of advantages over the alternatives proposed. 

For one thing, they would be able to make use of the existing road infrastructure: there would be no need to spend billions of dollars tunnelling through the earth when there are roads already there. 

For another, self-driving cars could be gradually arrived at through a series of incremental changes. While there’s not much use in a half-developed hyperloop, a car that’s only partially driven by an AI can be enormously useful. In fact, we’ve already started along this path, with technologies like lane-assist.

Self-driving cars wouldn’t just be a convenience; they’d have a revolutionary impact on the entire concept of car ownership. If there were a fleet of affordable vehicles in constant operation in your vicinity, without an expensive (and fallible) human driver at the wheel, then you’d be able to reliably hail a ride at very little cost.

Cars of this kind could theoretically be many times safer. But they could also be more efficient. By putting each vehicle in constant communication with the fleet, speeds could be co-ordinate, eliminating stop-start congestion. There would be no need for traffic lights or roundabouts in an environment where every vehicle knows what every other vehicle is about to do.

There would be no need to actually own a vehicle in these circumstances. And if you did own the vehicle, it could still remain productive while you weren’t using it — ferrying passengers around city centres while you sat at work. This would vastly reduce the demand for car parks. 

Plausibly, car ownership in this technological context would work a bit like a subscription to Netflix — you’d be able to summon a car at a moment’s notice, and you’ll pay for it whether you need it or not (which would make it easier for providers to cater to demand).

Driverless cars do throw up a few ethical quandaries, and there are technical challenges that still remain. Nevertheless, it’s among the more exciting answers to our current transport problems.

Science, technology and society

Renewable technology and batteries

It seems likely that we’ll power the vehicles of the future through electricity. What’s made the current surge in electric cars possible is a huge reduction in the cost of the lithium-ion battery. Since 1991, they’ve become 97% cheaper. If these trends continue, we should expect many of the storage woes associated with renewable energy to dissipate. We should also see the electric car becoming far more efficient as milestones like solid-state are finally reached.

What about hydrogen?

Hydrogen is an often-suggested alternative to traditional fossil fuels. It would function largely the same, except that it would produce no emissions other than water vapour. The problem here is that it’s very difficult to store and to transport. So, if it’s going to catch on, these issues need to be resolved.

Nuclear power

Nuclear fission has been with us for decades. It often gets a bad rap thanks to several high-profile disasters. Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three-mile Island all tend to provoke an immediate negative reaction among the voting public — and so policymakers often hesitate before advocating for it. 

The fact is that modern fission reactors tend to be much smaller and safer than some of the older ones that have been involved in high-profile accidents. And even those older plants are statistically much safer than many of the alternatives. Crunch the numbers, and you’ll discover that things like coal and oil produce more greenhouse gas emissions and many more deaths from workplace fatalities and air pollution. 

What about nuclear fusion?

Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, is a technology that promises to act as a panacea. Rather than splitting a heavy atom like uranium, it is smashing light atoms together. Unlike fission, it doesn’t generate any radioactive waste. Moreover, it’s vastly more efficient.

What is a bioeconomy?

‘Bioeconomy’ is a term with several different interpretations. You might see it used to refer to an economy that uses organic materials in the production of goods and services. If you buy a cheeseburger, then you’re actually buying a combination of plants and animals that have been processed in several different ways. 

We might also think about the incorporation of the natural world into our towns and cities. This is a major advantage of the proposed ‘hyperloop’, of self-driving cars, and of modern subway systems. With transport systems shifted underground, there’s more space available on the surface for parkland.

Bioeconomy tends to go hand-in-hand with a shift to renewable resources. We’re not only introducing more green space (including carbon-guzzling trees), we’re eliminating the sources of emission.

Green infrastructure

Spending time in nature confers a range of benefits to human beings. It’s proven to bolster our mental wellbeing, but it can also have a positive effect on our physical health by providing the space for walking and outdoor sports. 

Areas of parkland can also mitigate some of the harmful environmental effects of covering so much of the land in tarmac. They’re an antidote to the phenomenon of urban heat islands, and they’re a habitat for wildlife. 

Without green infrastructure in the form of parks, gardens, and the occasional row of roadside trees, we’d be living in a Blade Runner style dystopia. Any effort at making urban infrastructure more sustainable, therefore, should involve green infrastructure and a balance between street space and green space.

Blue-green infrastructure

Blue-green infrastructure is a more recent term, which seeks to acknowledge the role that water plays in our urban lives. For historical reasons, most of the world’s major cities are built around major rivers – but buildings, roads and rail can interfere with the way that water gets around, causing flooding and other problems. Blue-green infrastructure refers to a set of initiatives designed to mitigate these problems.

What does the far future hold?

While it’s easy to speculate about what the future might hold for transport, it’s less easy to be accurate about it. Back in the middle of the twentieth century, just about everyone supposed that their grandchildren would be getting to work in flying cars. So we should probably be cautious when making predictions.

Still, there are many exciting technologies emerging that might hold the key to the transport and infrastructure of the future. For example, we can superheat materials with highly-focussed, incredibly powerful lasers, which could help to create and propel our new forms of transport — whether on a rail, through a vacuum tube or through the vacuum of space!

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