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The Age of the Hyperloop Has Arrived. Well, for the Most Part

With a deep hum, linear induction motors spun up a powerful magnetic field along 200 feet of track in the Nevada desert. A shiny sled whizzed forward in a blur. Fifteen hundred pounds of aluminum reached 120 mph in just 1.5 seconds, accelerating to 300 mph before plowing into a sand berm.

Hyperloop works, you guys. Mostly. Kinda.

The transportation of tomorrow that billionaire rocketeer-automaker Elon Musk dreamed up in 2012passed its first test Wednesday. Yes, this version would still turn any human passengers into meat jelly. But at least it flies.

This was a major technology milestone, says Rob Lloyd, the CEO of Hyperloop One. More than that, it is asignificant step toward his company’s goal of sending people zooming through tubes before the decade is out.

Proponents of this outlandish idea say such a system will fundamentally change transportation, making neighbors of distant cities, rendering carbon-spewing trucks all but obsolete, and obviating the misery of air travel while sidestepping the political battles and massive cost associated with high-speed rail. (Yeah. Right.).

They call it the fifth great mode of transport—after the ship, the train, the automobile, and the airplane—and consider it every bit as revolutionary. “Hyperloop is faster, greener, safer, and cheaper than any other mode of transportation, Lloyd says.

Faster? Definitely. Greener and safer? Possibly. Cheaper? Theoretically. Of course, it’s all academic. Beyond some snazzy images rendered with computers and complex equations scrawled on whiteboards, Hyperloop doesnt exist. Wednesday’s test featured a test sled on a short stretch of rail.

Hyperloop in Brief


Lloyd is undeterred. He sees three lines running by 2020. “Were building this thing,” he says. Where that building will happen, though, is an open question. Lloyd says he’s interested in linking cities a few hundred miles apart, and connecting ports to inland transportation centers. Beyond suggesting the Port of Long Beach though, he doesn’t cite examples.

As crazyas that might sound, Hyperloop One is not alone in pursuing this dream. At least two other startups and students from dozens of universities are figuring out how to fling people vast distances at great speed. Even Musk, who tossed out the idea in a white paper before gettingback to cars and rockets, is building a test track near his Southern California spaceship factory.

Although the idea is new, the forces behind it are not:theconfidence bordering on hubris, the profligatespending of money and time, the excitement of engineers who say it can be done, and the skepticism of those who insistit cannot. The men and women populating these new Hyperloop efforts have every intention of being this century’s pioneers.

Building Things

It’s hard to take someone like Brogan BamBrogan seriously when you first meet him. Theres the name, of course, which he had legally changed from Kevin Brogan two years ago, and the unbuttoned shirt and the mustache that is somehow gray only on the left side. But then you talk to him, and you start to think, yeah, maybe this could actually work.

Maglev trains offer a cautionary tale. The technology clearly works; passengers cross Germany, China, and Japan at 300 mph or more. But maglevs are expensive to build, operate, and maintain. Theres a reason technological leaps in transportation are rare, Petroski says. They usually dont work quite as well as hoped.

Lloyd and BamBrogan understand this. And while they may want to reinvent transportation to eliminate the barriers of time and distance, they see this starting small.Lloyd likes to use the Port of Long Beach as an example. A hyperloop line between the port and a truck depot farther inland would keep all those semis from clogging the roads and sullying the air around LA, provide steady revenues, and make fatalities less likely in the event of an accident.

That’s just an idea. To find more potential routes, Hyperloop One is holding a “global challenge” in which government agencies, corporate entities and regular people can submit proposals and outline why they deserve a hyperloop. Its a clever way to identify where regulations and public approval will be easier to secure.They’ll select the winners by March 2017, giving them just a couple of years to actually plan and build the thing.

The Hyperloop One office is decorated with possible routes for the futuristic system, but the company hasn’t settled on any actual locations.Hyperloop

Challenges

Of course, before Hyperloop One, or anyone else, can consider any of this, someone will have to figure out how to make the technology actually work. Lloyd and BamBrogan have poached about 150 people from Tesla Motors, Boeing, Lufthansa, and SpaceX. We hire people that have built things, he says. They fill the company’s HQ, a former ice factory in downtown Los Angeles.

For all the eyebrows he raises, BamBrogan is a convincing salesman. While giving me a tour, he rattles off the top tier schools whose graduates now populate the open office. He shows off a custom wind tunnel the size of a 1950s TV set, which measures the lift and drag of the compressor that will sit on the front of the pod, sucking in whatever air’s left in the tunnel. The “levitation rig” resembles an industrial oven, and holds a spinning steel disc that tests the use of air bearings for floating above the track. Fanuc welding robots populate the yard behind the building, along with sections of test tube and rail tracks left behind by a former tenant.

As he walks, BamBrogan insists none of the core technologies involved are particularlyrevolutionary, or even that hard to master. The challenge is in making them all work together. Hyperloop is like, done,” he says. “We could absolutely build the Hyperloop today and deploy it. It would just be very expensive.The work right now is making every element as efficient as possible, and driving costs down to Lloyd’s proposed $10 million mile.

On Wednesday, May 11, Hyperloop One successfully tested its propulsion system in North Las Vegas.Hyperloop

Wednesdays test—the first demonstration of a full-scale component designed specifically for hyperloop—shows the company can make things move. That’s tangible progress. BamBrogans team is experimenting with passive magnetic levitation and air bearings—small jets that fire air downward, creating a cushion between the pod and the tube. It’s like an air hockey table, if the puck moved at Mach 0.5.

The tube that carries the pod? Not so challenging, given all the oil pipelines and subway lines criss-crossing the world. Maintaining a near vacuum within the tube is an issue, but doable, Lloyd says. Same for managing the aero- and thermodynamics. To help move things along, Hyperloop One is working with industrial players like engineering giant Aecom, industrial designers Arup; Swiss tunneling firm Amberg Group; and French railroad engineering firm Systra.

Lloyd and BamBrogans may be the biggest outfit in this field (it just closed an $80 million series B funding round), but it’s hardly alone. A company called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has a deal to build a system in Slovakia and a license to use passive maglev technology developed by a national lab. Toronto-based Transpod is angling for deals with the Canadian government and rail operators to push its technology forward. And then theres the army of student engineers working on their own ideas. Theyre supported by Elon Musk—who, based on past examples, is liable to jump in for himself at any moment.

They’ve all got more than enough work. They can’t settle for making the Hyperloop function—it has to be better than today’s alternatives. It has to be affordable, safe, and comfortable. It has to run logical routes. It has to make money. If it does all that, Clarke says, “it’ll be built.” And then maybe Elon will finally get that 30-minute commute from LA to San Francisco.

Peter Bohler for WIRED

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