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We need to talk about Hyperloop

Chronicle: Hyperloop could revolutionize high-speed travel much like budget airlines have dramatically reshaped the airline industry in recent decades, only with a much lower carbon impact. But then again, hyperloop could also go the way of the Concorde: an expensive dead-end.

At its simplest, the hyperloop concept is a maglev train in an (almost) airless tube. Whereas current high-speed and maglev trains operate at top speeds of 350 km/h and 430 km/h respectively, the hyperloop can theoretically operate at airline speeds of over 1,000 km/h. This would put Stockholm, Oslo, or Copenhagen all within reach of Gothenburg in under 30 minutes. All that stands in the way is installing hundreds of kilometers of steel tubes. Sounds easy right?

Of course, what we’ve described above is a gross simplification of the whole idea. Realizing the hyperloop will be extremely difficult, not just technically but also economically. And it will require much more than just constructing steel tubes. Indeed, even if it is technically possible there are no guarantees that it will be a cost-effective transport system at scale, just like the Concorde wasn’t. Despite the challenge, Hyperloop’s feasibility is worth exploring because the potential environmental and societal benefits could be staggering. It could dramatically lower the transportation systems energy needs, alter where people live and work, and create more economic activity between major cities. Here is where an organization like RISE, with a strong focus on both research and the public interest, has an important role to play – to understand the potential risks and implications of this technology as well as where Swedish research and industry may strategically contribute. 

Scale of the challenge

Hyperloop achieves extremely efficient and quick propulsion by combining magnetic levitation with a depressurized environment inside a tube system. Minimizing the air-pressure lowers resistance, which in turn, reduces the energy output needed to achieve and maintain high speeds. Magnetic levitation further decreases friction by lifting the vehicle. It also means that the propulsion system is partly built into the track instead of being carried on board the vehicle.

However, moving people around in a near-vacuum system of tubes stretching for hundreds (or even thousands) of kilometers is more difficult than it sounds. Vacuums themselves represent a significant danger as they carry the risk of implosive recompression if the tube’s structural integrity is ever compromised. Maintaining such a large vacuum could also be costly and require a lot of energy and equipment. The pods themselves must have life-support systems and be able to maintain stability at high speeds. Guidance and control systems for pods traveling together at high speeds with minimal gaps between them do not yet exist. Nor does a contactless method for allowing pods to switch tracks. Even if these technical challenges can be met the commercial viability is far from clear. How can such a system, which appears to be far more complex (and potentially more expensive) than existing maglev train lines, be cost effective when maglev is not?

The business challenge for Hyperloop is just as daunting as the technical challenge. The development, infrastructure construction, and land acquisition costs must be added to the costs of operation – the balance of these costs against potential revenue streams from ticket sales and station retail will determine economic viability. But at the end of the day, if hyperloop is to scale quickly it needs to be more than just viable, it needs to be highly profitable. After all, Concorde was viable just serving a small niche for several decades. It remains to be seen how different hyperloop developers will tackle these different problems.  It is still far from clear how many passengers per minute a functioning system could realistically transport. It also remains to be seen how much people would be willing to pay to have such quick travel times and to avoid the inconvenience of traveling to airports often located in the outskirts of cities. However, the rise and dominance of the budget airlines industry (prior to the Corona pandemic) has demonstrated that when it comes to travel, cheap ticket pricing is king, rather than comfort, convenience or the quality of the service.

A third challenge, which is neither directly technical nor financial, is standardization. This is critical if hyperloop is to disrupt both the train industry and the medium range airline industry because it will require (especially in the European context) crossing borders. The high level of standardization in the airline and train industries means that economies of scale can take place. Similarly, if hyperloop is to be able to function across Europe, and internationally, standards for safety, dimensions and construction will need to be agreed upon and developed. Significantly, the Swedish Institute for Standards has already begun looking into standardization for hyperloop.

High risk, high reward?

There is certainly a risk that hyperloop could end up being like the Concorde jet – a technical marvel providing an exclusive experience to a limited market of high-flyers who could afford it. But if hyperloop can scale successfully with affordable prices, it could have far reaching impacts on mobility, and by extension, society.

First, hyperloop could completely replace many short and medium-haul flight routes between major European cities – as besides speed, it offers the possibility of delivering passengers right into the heart of cities. This is a distinct advantage over airports, which are often far from city centers. The potential impacts on the climate could also be enormous if hyperloop displaces a large proportion of these flights and even undercuts the energy requirements of trains. Second, the time savings and convenience compared to going to airports could enable the possibility of people living and working much further apart than is currently conceivable. This could result in a trend of people moving away from mega-cities with expensive housing and strained infrastructure towards more medium sized cities with lower cost of living.

The benefits pointed out above focus on passenger transport, but just like with airlines and trains, logistics could also play a significant role. Hyperloop may well have distinct advantages for time sensitive logistics. Indeed, it is likely that the first operational systems will be used for this very purpose before being proven for human use.

RISE to the challenge

RISE can contribute in interesting ways to hyperloop development. With a strong history in systems of systems approaches to transportation, RISE has a wealth of relevant expertise. Hyperloop has several technical and system level differences to more traditional transport modes, but RISE is well positioned to extend competencies in this direction. Because hyperloop is a socio-technical system there are both technical and social challenges (as well as consequences) that will need to be evaluated. On the technical side knowledge areas such as AI, machine learning, electromobility, materials, infrastructure, cybersecurity, and smart hardware will be absolutely core to the success of hyperloop. On the social side there are issues within policy, urban planning, HMI, systems analysis, infrastructure management, and sustainable business.

Through these areas of expertise RISE can contribute directly to the development of this new transportation technology. Furthermore, RISE occupies a uniquely well-suited position in Sweden to support an investigation into hyperloop’s feasibility. As an independent research institute with a strong presence and network across industry, academia, civil society and the government, RISE can bring together the actors necessary for addressing hyperloop at the scale it needs to be addressed at. This could include organizing large-scale projects such as test tracks, running proof of technology competitions, developing risk assessment methodologies, and standardization work.

RISE is already active in many areas of cutting-edge transportation development, such as electric flight systems and autonomous vehicles. Hyperloop should feel right at home here as well.

Bobby Hao Chen, researcher within Electromobility

Joshua Bronson, senior researcher within Human-autonomy

Published: 2021-03-17
Joshua Bronson

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Joshua Bronson

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