21st Century Concorde: The loopy hype behind hyperloop

Written by: Justin Cunningham | Published:
Justin Cunningham - Editor Justin Cunningham - Editor
Hi Justin, I enjoy your Eureka moment, but have to indicate some of my disagreements with ...

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Am I the only one that sees the serious flaws in Hyperloop? I get the theory, I do, but practicality makes the technology simply too far ahead of its time. This is the 21st Century equivalent of the Concorde: expensive, complex and ultimately destined to fail.

The money needed to make Hyperloop successful is a fraction of what's currently on the table. And then there are the planning restrictions of putting giant metal pipelines throughout the countryside. It won't look like the future, it will look ugly, which will almost certainly push Hyperloops underground.

This presents more practical problems. Even with a quadrupling of tunnel boring speeds, the length of tunnels necessary to make it a worthwhile transport system simply don’t add up against the timescales being proposed. Those developers saying they want three operating lines by 2021... well, good luck with that!

It reminds me of the current political arena, which sees political parties forced to over-promise. Politicians know that what they're saying is impossible to deliver, but also know that the truth is not electable. Please, let's not let the engineering industry start down this rocky path, and while I see the need for Hyperloop to create interest, please keep it broadly realistic.

I'll also mention Hyperloop's competition, both as a futuristic mode of transport as well as for more immediate funding. There is a raft of other viable clean transport technologies being developed. Autonomous electric cars have the potential to make rail travel obsolete with door-to-door transport on demand. Electric aircraft are also in development, as is the flying car. While these latter forms of transport seem pie in the sky, they are actually being built and trialled, and developers seem more realistic about the finances, timescales and challenges ahead.

For transport systems the primary 'must-have' is not speed. Efficiency, reliability and operational safety trump speed - meaning slower aircraft, slower road speed limits and slower trains. There is no huge call for Concorde to return or 100mph motorway speed limits. I question the sellability of Hyperloop on the principle that it's so much faster - I'm just not sure the demand is there.

Perhaps Hyperloop’s biggest source of credibility is the notion that Elon Musk is driving it. Many assume he will make it work in the same miracle-worker type fashion he has for Tesla and SpaceX. The bad news is, he isn’t driving it, and he is far less active in Hyperloop than his other current successes. Musk also makes it clear, he has absolutely no business connection with any developer.

It’s a lesson for us all. A successful project ultimately has to result in practical roll-out and financial payback. Ideas and hype do not pay the bills and are a sure-fire way to lose money quickly. That’s why for me, Hyperloop is a fascinating, but totally implausible, project.

Justin Cunningham, Editor

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Hi Justin,
I enjoy your Eureka moment, but have to indicate some of my disagreements with criticizing the 'pneumatic human mail' which essentially is hyperloop. In small scale it worked reliably for long time transporting small cargo. Even nowadays I see new pneumatic installations for cash collection in supermarkets. And contrary to your statement, E.Musk companies are actively involved in testing the transport below the surface of LA, driving the project and working on the details of implementation. The truth is that the imagination of investors is always insane (fuelled by greedy expectations) and so expecting quick return, so it may be why some of them want to run the passengers services before 2021. In longer term - if the transport proves safe+reliable (like cargo line planned in Emirates), then for sure it is the way to go. As for now: what the excellent way to stimulate imagination of future engineers?

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