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Not So Fast: Will The Hyperloop Fly in the U.S.?

Not So Fast: Will The Hyperloop Fly in the U.S.?

Rocketeer: New Vlad, New Century

Rocketeer: New Vlad, New Century

by JOHN GREGERSON | June 5, 2016

For people of a certain age, there is more than a little nostalgia at play when the former Soviet Union announces very publicly that it is now in a race with counterparts in the U.S. to build a new space age vehicle that promises to revolutionize transportation.

Well, being the first to the Moon may not be the prize this go-round, but the stakes of this new race are still historically high. Last month, Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said his government is ready to finance construction of its own "hyperloop", a ground-based propulsion and transport system seeking unheard of speeds via “pods” or “capsules.” The challenge from Moscow arrived just days after Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One achieved its “Kitty Hawk moment" in the Nevada desert, where it completed its first successful preliminary test run. (See the above video.)

During that May 11 test, held 35 miles north of Las Vegas, a 1,500-lb bare metal sled, slightly elevated by magnetic levitation technology, rocketed down a 984-ft-long track, accelerating from zero to 60 mph in a mere 1.1 seconds. As the sand flew, team members and invited guests all seemed pleased with the result.

So far, so good. Now, if all stays on track, Hyperloop One will leverage the means and the technology to create a personalized transit system that reduces travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to a mere 30 minutes. At top speeds, hyperloops purportedly will achieve rates of 600 to 760 mph.

That pretty much will leave the existing high-speed rail lines that already criss-cross Europe, Japan, and other regions outside the U.S. — usually averaging about 124 mph — well, in the dust.


Can a nation that Largely sat out the high-speed rail revolution Retake the lead in transIt innovatioN?


The technology was conceived in 2013 by Elon Musk, celebrated founder of Tesla Motors, Space X and several other envelope-pushing ventures. To spur global competition, he made his data "open source", claiming that he did not have sufficient bandwidth to develop the hyperloop, himself. Now, with several start-ups and investors vying to take the wheel, the hyperloop has generated enthusiasm that crested with last month's test. But there is no reason to think that interest will subside anytime soon.

After all, Hyperloop One has attracted potential investors on the order of Oracle's Sun Microsystems, Sherpa Ventures, KPMG, and France's SNCF, in addition to the formidable international design and engineering expertise of AECOM, ARUP, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), and more. What's more, BW friend and CEO Tech Forum keynote Peter Diamandis also sits on its board.

And lest we forget, there is still another high-energy rival, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, also toiling in the California sun and aiming to overtake Hyperloop One before all is said and done.

Meanwhile, outside Fresno...

  • Posted June 2, this Caltrans video already has been viewed 4,166 times. For more, click here.


Interestingly, the tech race has set the stage for debates pitting the hyperloop versus high-speed rail, as if the two were mutually exclusive. That's a question far better-suited for more experienced European and Asian countries, given that the U.S., with few exceptions, all but sat out the era of high-speed rail, which had dawned with the launch of Japan's bullet train in 1964. Last week, at the Chicago Forum on Global Cities, officials from both New York City and Chicago bemoaned the lack of U.S political will to keep pace.

So, given our nation's recent track record of political dysfunction and spotty support for publicly-funded innovation, would the U.S. now really be any more receptive to a hyperloop, hype notwithstanding?

Well, maybe so.

After all, experts agree that high-speed rail has languished because of public sector inaction. In contrast, the hyperloop so far is leaning heavily on private investors, and developers claim they can build a breakthrough tube between Los Angeles and San Francisco for "only" $6 billion. Of course, critics and skeptics  and there are many  believe final project costs will rocket well north of $100 billion. And they warn that that will inevitably leave taxpayers on the hook for generations to come. Additionally, it is unlikely that the hyperloop, wherever the technology finds funding, can possibly elude government oversight, given regulatory reviews involving safety, codes, standards and countless other issues. Albeit warranted, those factors, too, will delay schedules and drive up costs.

However, the highest hurdle to any real transit revolution here may ultimately be the U.S., itself.

Sure, we famously won the "Space Race" when we landed on the Moon in July of 1969. But nearly half a century later, most passenger rail transport in the U.S. still moves at roughly the same speed. So, today, it is hard to imagine a prevailing public and/or private mindset that will embrace any quantum leap.

  • Visit USDOT's High-Speed Rail Timeline, 1965-2016. (Spoiler alert: Not much happens!)

In hindsight, high-speed rail's failure to launch here — despite myriad feasibility studies for routes between Detroit and St.Louis; Washington DC and Boston; Dallas and Houston, etc. — may owe as much to the nation's sheer geographical vastness and the relative efficiency of national and regional air travel, the TSA's recent delay nightmares notwithstanding. Politically, it is not so much the idea of high-speed rail, itself, that has opposition, but rather the apparent suicide pact that our two major governing parties seem to have signed with each other at every level of government.

  • Case in point: In 2009, as part of its emergency national economic stimulus package, the White House allocated $8 billion to USDOT to encourage high-speed rail investment nationwide. But some political opponents, like then-newly elected WI Gov. Scott Walker declined his state's portion of a $1-billion federal offer to help create a high-speed rail corridor connecting Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison WI. (BELOW: Ayn Rand's 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged revolves around the public-private battle over high-speed rail! An irrelevant coincidence? In Wisconsin, probably not.)

And so it goes. Question is, could the same conditions conspire to derail the hyperloop?

Assuming its technology is a go, the system still must overcome issues indigenous to it. Assuming fares are favorable, for instance, would extreme speeds and potential passenger discomfort and anxiety prove detrimental to ridership? Indeed, as most transit planners know, travel is a numbers game. As planned, the proposed LA-SF hyperloop line would carry 3,360 passengers per hour. In contrast, Caltrans projects that its $68-billion high-speed rail line now under construction will handle 12,000 per hour.

Even so, the potential of the hyperloop is still fascinating — even mind boggling. But there are lessons to be learned from the nation's ongoing high-speed rail fiasco that may prove quite applicable. As exciting as the hyperloop's prospects are right now, it may be wise to hold back a little... and to let high-speed rail's much-belated U.S. development and acceptance finally pave the way for other future advances.

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