Following a recent visit to Elon Musk’s Tesla electric car factory in California, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed interest in a less mature but potentially more groundbreaking idea: Hyperloop. Musk, the founder of companies such as SpaceX and Tesla, released an open-source proposal for the new mode of transportation in 2013.
At the core of Hyperloop’s futuristic concept is the ability to minimize physical constraints, including friction and air resistance, that reduce speed and increase the energy input required to move people and things across distances. Instead of running on wheels, the theoretical Hyperloop pod would float (using either air or magnets) in a tube depressurized to near vacuum conditions, mimicking the minimal air resistance normally experienced at high altitudes.
The envisaged system significantly reduces the amount of energy needed to propel the vessel forward.
As with any new technology, however, there are technical hurdles to overcome. Mastering the science of levitation, creating and maintaining a vacuum, and developing an effective propulsion system to move Hyperloop capsules are technical barriers that have yet to be truly broken. And then there is the matter of designing and fabricating a pod that will interact with an effective deceleration system; bringing a vessel to a steady halt from neck-breaking speeds without damaging onboard cargo.
One successful test in the Nevada desert showed that a Hyperloop vessel on wheels could be effectively accelerated, but the lack of brakes required the pod to be rammed into a pile of sand to come to a halt. Also, while there may eventually be potential for Hyperloop tubes to run underwater or underground to avoid complex terrain, the technology in early development is best suited for flat terrain to minimize external complicating factors.
Still, even at this nascent stage of development, private companies and countries are announcing planned projects to implement Hyperloop once it is fully functional.
The concept of Hyperloop, should it be realized, has the potential to bring the public and private sectors together. It could increase efficiency in specific areas of the supply chain, potentially relieve congestion in urban areas and change the way people move between cities.
The amount of time it takes, however, to develop a working Hyperloop system will be as important as its ultimate impact — it is certainly not the only technological solution to resolve existing constraints. The potential is there, though it is likely years or decades away. All that remains to be seen is whether those involved can actually make the technology work before interest and funding dry up.