GOLDEN, Colo. — Shortly after arriving at the Global Hyperloop Conference, Brad Swartzwelter looked me in the eye and issued himself a challenge. “If I haven’t convinced you by the end of this conference that Hyperloop is the most glorious transportation opportunity of our time, then I’ve failed.”
Swartzwelter, a stocky, middle-aged man with a graying goatee, tends to look at you slightly sideways as he speaks, arching one eyebrow ever higher as he expounds on his vision for the Hyperloop — a vast network of pods travelling in reduced air pressure tubes at upwards of 1,100km per hour. He holds court on the subject with self-assuredness, because he has been holding this court, and repeating these words, perhaps longer than any other living person.
Back in the 1990s, Swartzwelter grew increasingly frustrated with the inefficiencies in his day job as an Amtrak conductor; the extended delays, the waits for switches to lock into place so his train could proceed on the correct track, the slow and infrequent service. So, he started looking into better ways to move people. After years of searching, he stumbled on the concept of vacuum trains, an old idea proposed by the then-college student (later rocket scientist) Robert Goddard in the early 1900s.
SwissMetro, one of the only real efforts to make vacuum trains a reality in the 1990s, dissolved in 2010, but by then Swartzwelter was smitten. He knew, deep in the marrow of his bones, that he had found the answer to the world’s transportation problems.
Vacuum trains, Swartzwelter predicted, would incorporate the best aspects of every transportation mode and none of their drawbacks. As fast as a plane, as convenient as a train, and more environmentally friendly than a monorail.
In 2003, Swartzwelter wrote a book called Faster Than Jets: A Solution to America’s Long-Term Transportation Problems. He says now, as he arches that eyebrow as a hint of his sarcasm, that he believed the book would radically change the American transportation landscape as everyone accepted the obvious genius of magnetically-levitated trains moving through near-vacuum tubes.
That didn’t quite happen. Vacuum trains, or, as they are better known today, Hyperloops, remained in the kooky pile of transportation lore until just a few years ago.
Today, Hyperloops still barely exist, limited thus far to experimental tracks that have yet to transport a person. But a growing number of people like Swartzwelter are invested, either financially or emotionally, in a Hyperloop future. The Hyperloop is still not close to reality, but whether out of deep concern for our environmental future, potential business opportunities, or sheer enthusiasm for the next great transportation innovation, its most fervent supporters feel it is closer than ever.
Virgin Hyperloop One, a company backed by about a dozen investors from around the world including Virgin and Dubai port operator DP World, has 300 employees and is reportedly close to starting construction on its first full-scale project in India.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a company started by two crowdsource funding evangelists with no transportation experience who pay most of its employees only in stock, is working on a full-scale test track in France. Overall, about a half-dozen serious Hyperloop companies exist, vying to turn a century-long fever dream into something.
But describe a Hyperloop to a layperson — tens of thousands of miles of tubes transporting people at hundreds of miles an hour — and it sounds, well, nuts. Anecdotally, the most common reactions I get are something along the lines of “Why would anyone want that?” and “Who will pay for it?”
Which is why I have come to the Global Hyperloop Conference, organised by the Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership (HARP), a tiny non-profit that seeks to be a kind of clearinghouse for Hyperloop knowledge.
If the attendance at this conference was any indication, not very many people are on board with this whole Hyperloop thing. At least not yet. According to a list shared with all the participants after the conference, about half of the conference’s 60 or so attendees were either speakers or panelists at some point during the two-day conference.
This reflects HARP’s vibe as more of an enthusiast community than a burgeoning multi-billion dollar industry. Steve Cohn, HARP’s newly appointed president and a retired scientist from the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, told me after one panel that HARP is made up of about 15 core members who video chat almost every week. They have barely enough funding to put on the conference every year and keep their website running.
“We are a bunch of volunteers” who “love technology,” he said in a quiet, gentle voice as others small talk in groups around us.
This is also very much in keeping with the Kitty Hawk vibe the Hyperloop community cultivates, a reference frequently made in the Hyperloop community to the moment Orville and Wilbur Wright executed the first controlled human flight. Virgin Hyperloop One claims it achieved its “Kitty Hawk moment” on May 12, 2017 when it achieved its first magnetic levitation in a tube at 110km per hour. Much like the original Kitty Hawk moment more than a century ago, this, too, went mostly unnoticed by the general public.
“In spite of the fact we’re enthusiastic and somewhat have rose coloured glasses on,” Cohn continued, “we’re scientists and understand the need to be unbiased in our conclusions.” (To be clear, not all of them are scientists.)
Indeed, the involvement of people like Cohn who, at least to me, appear to be perfectly rational and accomplished scientists, makes it slightly more difficult to dismiss Hyperloops as nuts. At the very least, it indicates some other factor is at play beyond hucksterism in the age of rampant venture capital funding of dubious startup ideas.
Is it even remotely possible, I began to wonder, that they’re onto something? Could Hyperloops really be the greatest transportation breakthrough in generations as Swartzwelter claims, the one that can save humanity? Or is this just another con where the bullshit artists have roped in a couple of patsies?
Making Up Words
Should you manage to locate a copy of Faster Than Jets, you will not find the word “hyperloop” anywhere in it. That’s because the word didn’t exist in 2003 — and indeed few people other than Swartzwelter were giving any thought to vacuum trains — until a decade later, when Elon Musk made it up.
In a now-legendary 2013 white paper those in the Hyperloop community call “The Alpha Paper” with more than a hint of ideological reverence, Musk wrote that, similarly to Swartzwelter’s origin story, the exorbitant costs and low speeds of American rail infrastructure — specifically California’s high speed rail project in Musk’s case — convinced him there had to be a better way. Musk revived the idea of vacuum trains over 57 pages replete with his informal techno-futuristic style.
In an unusual move widely interpreted as a form of intellectual philanthropy, rather than attempt to develop a Hyperloop himself, Musk published The Alpha Paper and challenged anyone who wanted to take a stab at building one.
So what, exactly, is a Hyperloop? Although it has no exact definition, “Hyperloop” is used to describe high-speed travel through a low-pressure tube. And for all the complicated physics involved, the concept is devilishly simple.
Aeroplanes fly at 9,000m where the air pressure is much lower, which reduces air resistance, enabling faster travel. The idea of a Hyperloop — and the vactrain and every similar proposal that came before it — is to simulate that low-pressure environment here at surface level in a tube.
But what exactly is moving through the tube, and how, and under what method the air pressure is being reduced to near-vacuum state (and how it will be kept there), is a matter of debate and experimentation by the handful of Hyperloop companies that have sprouted up post-Alpha Paper.
Even with these details up for debate, the hypothetical benefits are nearly incalculable. The Alpha Paper predicted speeds of more than 1000km/h, a number still widely used by Hyperloop evangelists. Virgin Hyperloop One uses 960km/h, others use 670. Whatever the number is, they all think they can go multiple times faster than high-speed rail.
(However, at this point, nobody has come even remotely close to achieving it. The current speed record of 463km/h was recently set with a roughly human-sized pod in a small scale tube.)
But the purported benefits don’t stop at high speeds. A fully realised Hyperloop, the thinking goes, would achieve these speeds using less energy than required to power an electric car. Some go even further and say less than a lightbulb.
In other words, Hyperloop suggests a no-compromise future of transportation technology: faster than a jumbo jet, net-zero clean energy — or even net-positive if you mount solar panels on the tubes — and just as convenient as urban rail from city centre to city centre.
This sounds nuts. But, to Hyperloop boosters like Cornell University Professor Richard Geddes, one of the speakers at the conference, it sounds nuts in the same way that describing the operations of Newark Airport while standing on that North Carolina Outer Banks beach in 1903 watching the Wright brothers fly a plane for the first time would have been nuts.
To people like Geddes, the fact that it sounds nuts is not a deterrent, but a goal. It is what makes all this worth doing.
From the 50 years from 1919 to 1969, Swartzwelter said, we went from rickety World War I-era biplanes to supersonic jets and landing a man on the moon. In his mind, over the following 50 years, from 1969 to today, we went nowhere.
Swartzwelter believes we are due.
“There’s No Such Thing As Cold, Hard Reality”
Fifty years from now, Swartzwelter predicts, he will be able to hop into his electric car and drive to his local Hyperloop station, perhaps a mile or so away from his home near Denver.
From there, he can zoom his way to Telluride for a ski day, or to Denver International Airport to catch a connection to any city in the country, and be home by dinner. This connection will not involve getting out the Hyperloop, but seamlessly switching tracks via a perfectly-functioning algorithm managing hundreds of interconnecting tubes.
Not every Hyperloop vision has precisely matched Swartzwelter’s, but neither are they too far apart, and they’re all lubricated with a healthy application of techno-optimism. Chuck Michael, head of U.S. feasibility studies for HTT said in a presentation their system has a top speed of “theoretically” around 1,220km/h, with 160,000 daily passengers based on 40 second headways, all of which are orders of magnitude improvements over even the most advanced high-speed rail networks.
Mars Geuze presented remotely from the Netherlands for his company, Hardt Hyperloop, to reinforce their vision of “a world where distance doesn’t matter anymore.”
Another presenter, John Whitcomb of “Hypernet Holding Corporation” — which so far as I can tell exists only on paper — posited in a bullet point of a slide that Hyperloops could serve a $US760 billion ($1.107 trillion) per year market, a projection he declared to be “reasonable but probably not accurate.”
In general, nearly everyone at the conference spoke of Hyperloops as an inevitability, a matter of if not when, and some sooner rather than later. For example, Dave Clute, the interim president for HARP, thinks we’re 10 years out from a Hyperloop network in the Midwest. He did not elaborate on this prediction before moving on to his next point.
And HARP’s communications director, David Pring-Mill, rebuffed the idea that Hyperloops have, as a Daily Beast headline from March put it, failed as an idea as they’ve slammed into “cold, hard reality.”
Once upon a time, Pring-Mill contended, horses and buggies were the cold, hard reality of the transportation world. Then, in what he characterised as “the blink of an eye,” railroads lined the continents. Another blink and aeroplanes, metal tubes in the sky, became the norm for long-distance transportation. Now, Pring-Mill posits, we shall blink once more, and metal tubes on the ground will be the newest cold, hard reality.
“There’s no such thing,” he said, “as cold, hard reality.”
For all of its aspirational bluster, the Hyperloop is addressing at least one real and urgent problem: aeroplane travel is terrible for the environment.
One passenger’s share of one flight can account for as much CO2 as some people are responsible for in an entire year.
A cross-country flight can result in as much as a ton of CO2 emissions per person. Plus, the high altitude at which these emissions take place exacerbate the effect, so the actual impact on the environment can be several times worse than the CO2 emissions alone.
Although aeroplanes currently account for only about 1.3 per cent of emissions, according to a Bloomberg report, all aeroplane travel — including passenger jets, private jets, cargo, and military — is expected to grow 4.4 per cent annually for the next two decades.
Moreover, long-distance travel is one area of carbon emissions where we have no good ideas on how to reduce emissions through innovation. Electric motors are unlikely to be able to provide enough power relative to the weight of batteries to fly heavy planes efficiently. Even Airbus’s head of electrification efforts told Bloomberg that, as the publication paraphrased, “An emissions-free solution for long-haul flights, on the other hand, will likely remain elusive for decades to come.”
At present one of the only solutions is to fly less. A lot less.
Enter the Hyperloop. One of the cornerstone promises of the Hyperloop future is that it will be low, or no, emissions. Using some type of magnetic levitation (Maglev) technology — each Hyperloop company is producing its own proprietary version that works slightly differently — Hyperloops would float through near-vacuum tunnels. Because of the low air resistance and Maglev technology, it wouldn’t take much energy at all to get the pods moving. Using Maglev would also reduce friction so the pods would need little additional energy to keep moving, even at fantastic speeds.
Using back-of-the-envelope calculations, Cohn estimates that a well-developed Hyperloop network across major land masses could reduce emissions in the transportation sector by 28 per cent, mostly replacing long-haul trucking and plane trips over land. Transportation emissions as a whole currently account for about a quarter to a third of overall emissions, depending on the country or continent.
But, in order for these emission reductions to become reality, so too must a network of tubes. Tens of thousands of miles of tubes.
To make those energy savings a reality in time to avert climate disaster, those tubes have to be built across land quickly. Very quickly. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned the rest of humanity that emissions must be reduced to near-zero by 2050 to have a chance of limiting total global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Failing to do this, the panel warned, would expose hundreds of millions of people to climate-related risks such as extreme weather, flooding, heat, and famine.
This gives us roughly 30 years, at most, to build out such a Hyperloop network. How to do that is one of the biggest hurdles facing Hyperloops.
“Space Is Easy, Earth Is Hard”
Just as with highways and railroad tracks, there are three options for where to build Hyperloop tubes: at ground level, above ground on elevated structures, or below ground in tunnels.
Early on, the Hyperloop community generally settled on a preference for tunnels for two main reasons. First, they offer the straightest option, which is crucial to fulfilling their high-speed ambitions. At 1,120km/h — not far off the speed of sound — even the most gradual bends or dips would create extreme G forces and be nearly intolerable for the passengers inside.
A Hyperloop would need approximately six miles to execute a 90-degree turn at 966km/h, a Virgin Hyperloop One engineer told the New York Times. Even following a public right-of-way like a highway, with the elevation changes and bends in the road, would force Hyperloops to go much slower.
Second, exposure to weather and the elements could be problematic, or at least less desirable. Ryan Janzen of the Canadian Hyperloop firm TransPod, said tube vibration as the pods woosh through — not to mention from severe weather — could create a Hyperloop version of turbulence and perhaps lower the speed at which the pods can move.
Underground, the tubes are shielded from all of that, even during earthquakes. (Janzen added that every rendering in which you see clear tubes are merely for illustrative purposes; the tubes, in reality, will be thick, opaque steel.)
But — there is always a “but” with Hyperloops — digging tunnels is hard, slow, and expensive, all of which are the exact antithesis of what Hyperloops are supposed to be.
According to Michael Mooney, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Mines who specialises in tunnelling, planners tend to use a rule of thumb for estimating project costs he called “1x, 3x, 10x,” meaning elevated projects cost three times more than at-grade ones, and tunnels cost 10 times more.
The more advanced tunnel boring machines (TBMs) operating in the world today on major transportation projects tend to achieve a tunnelling rate of about 30.48m per day. Using back-of-the-envelope calculations, this would mean one TBM would take approximately 32.5 years to dig from Washington, D.C. to New York City, assuming constant digging 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
And that’s just for one tunnel; there would, of course, need to be at least two even in this single example, and likely many more than that to fulfil the kind of ridership numbers HTT and others envision. They could use multiple TBMs, of course, but given the sheer scale of the undertaking, it’s hard to see how one project could take anything less than decades.
These, I thought, would be sobering realisations for anyone pumped about a Hyperloop future. But few others seemed fazed by it. The Boring Company, a venture both run by Musk and Muskian in its vision, thinks it can tunnel faster and cheaper, at a rate of $US1 ($1.5) million per mile, a figure dozens of times cheaper than industry standards, and hundreds of times cheaper than urban rail projects like New York’s Second Avenue Subway.
“Let’s pump the brakes a bit on the million dollar cost,” Mooney said at one point, before adding, “Boy, I think we’re a long ways away from a million dollars a mile.”
And that’s even before accounting for the fact that, here in the U.S., land ownership rights extend to the Earth’s core. You can’t dig a tunnel underneath someone’s property in the same way you can fly a plane over it.
Either Hyperloop companies would have to buy their way underneath people’s land, use a public right of way like a highway or pipeline — which, again, would sacrifice speed — or, Swartzwelter’s preferred option, change the law so land ownership extends only to a certain depth.
No matter which course of action, it’s hard to imagine any of them being speedy.
The first time I was intellectually sparring with Swartzwelter over this tunnelling issue, he made the off-hand remark that I nevertheless thought about throughout the rest of the conference.
“Space is easy. Earth is hard,” he asserted. “Nobody is suing you in space.”
The conference went on like this for two full days, as existential threats to the viability of the Hyperloop were casually deflected for more enthusiastic conversations like what shape should the tubes be or how will we stop riders from losing their shit — both figuratively and literally — due to their vestibular system becoming all whacky in a windowless pod shooting through a tube at 1,120km/h.
About midway through the second day, I realised this was not so much a conference about Hyperloops, but in people’s undying faith in technological innovation to fix the world’s problems. “We’re at the stage of trying to understand what it’s important to understand,” Cohn said during one panel, which could just as easily be rephrased to say we don’t understand very much about Hyperloops at all.
After I expressed yet another of my seemingly never-ending concerns about the viability of Hyperloops, Swartzwelter arched that eyebrow again and replied, “I am an optimist. I believe we will find answers to these questions.”
I wasn’t so sure. Sitting in the back of the conference room by the coffee table, I often felt very alone in my doubts.
The exception was HARP’s most sceptical member, Ian Sutton, a former safety engineer who now writes technical books on the subject. To round out the conference, he gave an unscheduled speech to offer what he described as a reality check.
“My perception is members of the public, until they see [a full scale working Hyperloop], they’re not going to buy into it. It’s just going to be talk,” Sutton cautioned.
This echoed a point made the previous day by Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Shoshana Lew, who briefly dropped in, that it’s good practice to “start to show results before burdening people with construction.” It’s not helpful, she seemed to be saying, to conduct all your experiments and demonstrations in secret, as Hyperloop companies tend to do.
In one of the more grounded moments of the conference, she followed that up by touting a direct bus service CDOT launched called Bustang (I know) offering direct service from Denver’s Union Station to Boulder.
“Don’t underestimate,” she added in a remark she meant quite literally about bus drop-off points but nevertheless landed well philosophically, “the best solution is easy to get to.”
In this sense, the Hyperloop is an extremely difficult solution to get to. In his reality check, Sutton sees several major challenges facing Hyperloops, including but not limited to: safety (not just achieving it but convincing the public of it); scalability (“just because something can be done doesn’t mean it will be done”); funding, including how to deal with the inevitable cost overruns (Geddes had earlier said it would take “large amounts of institutional capital” like sovereign wealth funds to make Hyperloop a reality); timing on actually building a workable network and whether it comports with the rate of climate change; and legal challenges such as land takings.
“I think,” Sutton concluded, “an important role for HARP to play is to be a little bit cautious.”
As much as I respected Sutton getting up in front of a room of Hyperloop enthusiasts and laying out the reasons they were not working within the confines of reality, the very idea of Hyperloop enthusiasts exercising intellectual caution seemed against the point of being a Hyperloop dreamer in the first place.
Earlier that day over lunch, Will Kerns, another employee at HTT, regaled me with his vision of how HTT will completely re-imagine the station experience. Through all kinds of futuristic ideas like full body security scans built into the tunnels as you walk to your pod, Kerns said people will have the seamless transportation experience we can barely even fathom today.
“The best thing about working for a Hyperloop company is we are inventing a whole new form of transportation,” Kerns gushed. “We can learn from the mistakes of all other modes of transportation.”
I thought back to Whitcomb’s remark that he thought the tubes should be square, not round, because “I never liked the round tubes.” Or chemist Al Whaller’s idea that the tubes should be filled not with air, but perhaps hydrogen or helium, which are less dense and therefore offer lower resistance (never mind that hydrogen is flammable and helium is very expensive).
Or Geddes’s suggestion that the tubes be built at grade so they can simply be picked up and moved to respond to demand. Or Whitcomb’s other remark that Hyperloops will enable the NFL and NBA to “go global,” one of the dozens of remarks or hypothetical benefits Hyperloops might offer that were eaten up in bite-sized chunks before never being explained or mentioned again.
What all of these ideas have in common is they are merely that. Ideas, barely vetted for any semblance of practicality, but thrown out in the world based on perceived failures of what humans have thus far invented.
To the Hyperloopist, the past is failure, reality is a mistake, and the future is success. Everything is on the table, and then taken off the table and shot through a tube, at 1,120km/h, caution to the wind.
“We already have this fifth form of transportation,” Whaller opined during his talk. “It’s pipelines. We just haven’t extended it to people.”