Is the Hyperloop doomed?

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Specifically for the New York Times Infobae.

(Future of Transport)

It’s been a transportation dream for more than 150 years: In the 1870s, a test system used a pneumatic vacuum tube to ferry people under Manhattan from Warren Street to Murray Street.

In the 2010s, a new and much-improved version of vacuum tube technology called “Hyperloop” promised to transport people not just a few blocks but between cities at speeds rivaling air travel, by magnetically snapping passengers’ pods at over 600 miles per hour let float .

But while companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing and building Hyperloop systems — with projects in India, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and the United States — the technology remains ambitious.

The concept received a boost in November 2020 when Virgin Hyperloop (then known as Hyperloop One) became the first company to use technology to move people. At its Hyperloop test facility outside of Las Vegas, two employees drove a full-size vacuum tube at 105 miles per hour on a 1,600-foot test track. Although the system was light-years from the promised 600 mph, company executives at the time said the test showed the system could work.

“This is the first new form of mass transit in over 100 years,” said Jay Walder, the company’s CEO at the time. The test passengers “are real people. This test shows that we are a safety culture.”

Barely a year later, however, the company downsized and scaled back its ambitions. Walder left the company in February 2021; Josh Giegel, his successor as CEO and co-founder of the company, followed in his footsteps last October, and in January Virgin Hyperloop laid off half of its workforce (over a hundred employees) and halted development of a certification center in West Virginia that has been developing a route in India paused and turned to cargo (Virgin Hyperloop has not responded to multiple requests for comment).

According to transportation industry analysts, downsizing and changing focus of the company are exemplary difficulties faced by the Hyperloop industry.

“All the time you see technological innovations that can attract a lot of investment and make a lot of money during the hype cycle,” said Juan Matute, associate director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles campus. However, the technology does not anticipate the significant engineering challenges that come with creating an entirely new infrastructure. “Then the interest wanes,” commented Matute.

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

The central obstacle: Although new means of transport such as electric vehicles can be easily integrated into the existing road network, a Hyperloop system would require the construction of an entire infrastructure. This implies building kilometer systems of tubes and stations, acquiring rights of passage, complying with government regulations and policies, and drawing changes to the ecology along their routes.

Several companies in this technology continue to work to create workable systems. In some cases, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed progress as governments attended to more pressing matters. Virgin Hyperloop has halted work on its India project, according to a spokesman for DP World, a logistics company specializing in global supply chains and majority owner of Virgin Hyperloop.

The suspension of the project is “more of a regulatory and political matter. They had a change of priorities,” said Daniel Van Otterdijk, DP World’s head of group communications.

Toronto-based TransPod had planned to build a mid-size Hyperloop test track in Limoges, France by 2019, but it was postponed; Construction has begun, said Sebastien Gendron, the company’s CEO and co-founder. “The plan is to make it 3 kilometers long, but it could be shorter,” he said.

The company is also planning an elevated rail system connecting Calgary and Edmonton airports. Its first phase will be a test track 5 kilometers from Edmonton. The company hopes to complete it in 2025 and then begin a two-year certification process, allowing construction to begin toward Calgary in 2027.

The company envisions a system that will transport cargo and eventually people. “Not having a passenger system would be stupid,” Gendron said. However, he acknowledges that funding remains a major hurdle.

“Our biggest challenge was accessing capital,” said Gendron. The company requires $550 million to build and $300 million to operate the company. Government involvement was also an obstacle. “Our world is risk-averse,” he commented.

As late as 2019, Los Angeles-based company Hyperloop TT continued its work on building a system in the United Arab Emirates, but is now focused on other projects, said Andrés de León, its managing director.

Its project in the United States, which is further afield in terms of development, is planned for the Great Lakes region, where the company is seeking private financing to conduct a two-year environmental impact study prior to construction of the highway.

The company also hopes to get the right to plan a system between the Italian cities of Venice and Padua. If it wins the contract, it would first build a 10-kilometer test track that would cost 800 million euros (about the same amount in US dollars) over three years, but construction would only begin after a two-year feasibility study.

“We need to promote a system that transports passengers, light cargo and containers in parallel,” said De León. “We see a great opportunity in freight, as air freight costs ten times as much as Hyperloop.”

In fact, a viable passenger system would cost significantly more than one focused on cargo. With people on board, the line’s curves would need to be less steep to avoid inconvenience, and safety safeguards would need to be essential to ensure that tampering or system failure in the tube would not cause catastrophic depressurization or failure. Oxygen for people who travel.

“Getting the Hyperloop to work to transport people is a very big hurdle,” said Hugh Hunt, professor of dynamics and vibration in engineering at the University of Cambridge. “Sending people to the moon costs ten times more than sending a ship without a crew.”

There are those who dismiss the value of creating a freight transportation system using Hyperloop technology. Virgin Hyperloop’s decision to downplay the development of a passenger system in favor of a cargo system was a strategic mistake, said Walder, who ran New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and Transport for London before joining the company.

“Will we be able to create a Hyperloop system for passengers in 10 years? Probably not,” he said. “But creating a cargo system isn’t that exciting. The benefits are much more limited.

Others see a Hyperloop system designed solely to move cargo as a solution to finding a problem.

“I’m not aware of any case where shipments are so urgent,” said Carlo van de Weijer, director of intelligent mobility at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. “Most shipments from China take two and a half weeks to arrive. Why would you suddenly have to move them in ten minutes? We have no problem with a truck that drives at 80 kilometers per hour.”

Van de Weijer believes the “huge” infrastructure costs associated with the Hyperloop — including building tubes, tunnels and pillars — aren’t worth the expense.

“If you build 2 kilometers of track, you can drive 2 kilometers,” he said. “If you build 2 kilometers of runway, you can travel around the world.” Instead of creating a whole new system, people in the industry should improve the existing high-speed transportation.

“In time we will have sustainable jet fuels,” he added. “To say we should build a Hyperloop system is like saying we should invest in VCRs because of Netflix’s high energy consumption. We need to make continuous broadcasting more efficient.”

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