The Hyperloop may prove to be a wondrous and radical technology that will change everything we know about travel. But there are several major challenges it needs to overcome, and those challenges suggest that Hyperloop might be better suited for transporting goods — not people.
Lead image: One vision of the Hyperloop traversing the desert, from Suprastudio/UCLA
Speaking at the Los Angeles Times transportation event The Road Ahead on Monday, Rob Lloyd, the CEO of Hyperloop Technologies — one of the three startups pursuing the idea — gave updates on the company's progress, including that its Hyperloop test track would be completed in Las Vegas by the end of 2016. This is the real-world application that the project desperately needs to be embraced by the mainstream — a full-scale demonstration of the technology which might prove to critics that pneumatic tube transit is the future.
But is it? Lloyd said a few things that made me think Hyperloop — the first section of which is currently being designed to shuttle humans from Los Angeles to San Francisco in about an hour — would be better suited for moving inanimate objects throughout California. Especially since we already have a solid high-speed rail plan underway that's travelling almost the same route.
"Goods movement" — the process of moving all our stuff around the world — is one of our biggest contemporary transportation crises. No matter what part of the process, at any scale, from global shipping to local deliveries, the amount of energy we use (and resulting carbon emissions we produce) is growing at an astounding rate. We moved 10 billion tons of stuff around in 2014; in 2000 it was a third of that. Planes, cargo ships, tractor-trailers — they all suck when it comes to moving our stuff around.
In many ways, the Hyperloop sounds perfectly suited for goods movement. A Hyperloop car (pod? loop?) is the about the size of a shipping container, being pushed through a similarly-sized tube. Hyperloop is meant to be a low-emissions transit solution (at least lower-emissions than flying). It's fast — travelling up to 800 miles per hour, which might even be too fast for human passengers. And since it's being planned to start in LA, that gives it great proximity to the biggest port in the US, which is struggling with how to distribute its cargo throughout the country in a sustainable way.
But as we know, the biggest problem right now with Hyperloop (and similarly with high-speed rail) isn't really the technology, but the alignment: deciding on the best route for the train to take, and securing those right-of-ways with property owners. This is why California's high-speed rail (HSR) construction is starting in Northern California instead of the LA area. And why Hyperloop is going to have a really hard time getting permission to build a never-before-seen transportation system in the same places that tried-and-true HSR has been attempted for decades.
Lloyd seemed to think that getting the right-of-ways wouldn't be a problem, since Hyperloop has a smaller footprint and less of an impact on the natural environment. Perhaps. But one of the perks of asking the cities along the high-speed rail route for permission is that they might get an HSR station as part of the deal. The benefits are inherent. But Hyperloop will not stop between LA and SF. So imagine getting those dozen middle-sized cities between LA and SF to allow a tube to snake through through their backyards without being able to access it. They're not gonna approve a Hyperloop.
But this is also where the idea of transporting goods instead of people makes sense. If the urgency of getting people from LA to SF in under an hour was not as important, Hyperloop could stop along the way. What if the tube somehow brought down the price of products that otherwise had to be flown or trucked to their homes? And lowered the number of trucks that came ratting through their cities? The cities of the Central Valley would be much more likely to approve something like this.
And then there's the actual passenger experience. If the goal is to wean people off flying — to have a more pleasant travel experience without the TSA and long waiting times — any new transit system needs to be faster than a plane. High-speed rail is too slow due to all the stops, Lloyd said at Monday's event, and people will never ride the train because of that. (This did not please the high-speed rail advocates in the room. At one point, Lloyd was getting heckled by a few of them.)
But that's the other critical difference between the Hyperloop and the train. An estimated 2.5 hours from LA to SF on HSR is still faster than flying (if you factor in the airport) but there's something to be said about the experience of riding an actual above-ground train and watching the scenery go by. Hyperloop might offer a cushy seat and VR entertainment, but for the most part it's a small pod in a dark tunnel going really, really fast. So fast it might make me feel uncomfortable. So I'd be stuck in a stuffy, vomit-inducing cylinder with no way to get off? Appealing.
In fact, Hyperloop Technologies is already thinking about goods as kind of a secondary gig after transporting humans. The company has proposed a "dry port" for the state that would rival the Port of LA in size and could be located anywhere in California — maybe even halfway between LA and SF. The idea here is that the technology would make it so easy to ship anything throughout California — and eventually the country — that the dry port would become a major manufacturing and distribution center in itself. Kind of like Memphis thanks to the presence of FedEx.
If that dry port was located halfway between SF and LA, that would put it right around Fresno, the heart of the state's agricultural industry. Hyperloop would create a vastly more sustainable way to transport most of the food that feeds the US (and beyond), and it would dramatically improve daily life for the communities that grow it. In addition to water scarcity problems, the Central Valley has some of the most polluted air in the country, partially due to the trucks which travel up and down the 5 Freeway.
When it comes to tapping the Hyperloop's potential, I think it can help solve a major transportation conundrum. But I think we should let our stuff get sucked and blown through giant tubes. Let's build a high-speed rail for the humans.