“Transportation Revolution with Hyperloop Technology”
In light of the plans for the high-speed rail train from Los Angeles to San Francisco, entrepreneurs and designers like Elon Musk and Daryl Oster have proposed alternative designs for a supersonic train that travels through vacuum-sealed tubes. They claim their designs will bridge the gaps between distant cities and nations by providing affordable, energy efficient, and extremely fast transportation. Several industries are already developing new technologies to create faster forms of ground transportation such as the Maglev and Aero Train. If supersonic trains become a new, feasible form of transportation, they could revolutionize human existence on a global scale by allowing for clean high-speed travel across the world.
Since the late 19th century, train speeds have gradually increased from a maximum speed of 112 miles per hour in 1893 to a maximum speed of about 350 miles per hour today with conventional high-speed rails running around 180 miles per hour . Table 1 shows the steady progression of train speeds since the early 19th century to today. These train speeds increased as the power systems and train technology has progressed from steam power to electric power to magnetic propulsion and onward.
With increasing global fossil fuel reliance and a desire to lower travel times, engineers are searching for a faster, cleaner, and more energy efficient form of transportation to travel both in country and around the world. Elon Musk, of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, and entrepreneur Daryl Oster have proposed designs for new forms of transportation known as the Hyperloop and Evacuated Tube Transport respectively. Hyperloop and Evacuated Tube Transport, or ETT, are proposed designs for supersonic frictionless travel through a system of pipelines. Capsules travel through little to no atmosphere in tunnels using air cushioning and magnetic suspension to levitate and propel forward.
Musk and Oster boast that their systems would be faster, cleaner, and more sustainable than any current form of transportation. Oster claims that ETT will be able to make a trip from New York to Beijing in only two hours . Musk states that the Hyperloop would be able to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just a half an hour. He also says that due to low operation costs the Hyperloop will be as cheap as twenty dollars current value for a passenger to ride . These proposed designs for future high-speed transportations vary slightly in design, but both have the same fundamental function. For the purpose of this paper I will refer primarily to the overall technological design and development of supersonic vacuum trains through the context of Musk’s Hyperloop and Oster’s ETT.
Italicized words within the text are defined in the glossary in the appendix.
How It Works
While Musk proposes some new innovations to make Hyperloop possible, much of the ingenuity stems from implementing technologies that are already in use . He provides a concise description of the functionality of Hyperloop in his recent proposal:
Hyperloop consists of a low-pressure tube with capsules that are transported at both low and high speeds throughout the length of the tube. The capsules are supported on a cushion of air, featuring pressurized air and aerodynamic lift. The capsules are accelerated via a magnetic linear accelerator affixed at various stations on the low-pressure tube with rotors contained in each capsule. 
Rolling friction from wheels limits railway trains from reaching faster speeds, and the faster a railway train goes the more the track and wheels deteriorate. Engineers can overcome this limitation by scrapping wheels altogether and using either ground-effect or magnetic levitation . Both conventions are already in use. Maglev trains use superconductors and magnets to keep the train levitating above the track but also firmly braced by a magnetic field. Maglev trains even use magnetic attraction to pull the train forward and create an electric and efficient form of acceleration .
However, maglev trains still have the issue of fluid friction caused by the surrounding air. Ground-effect trains embrace this air drag and use it as a form of propulsion and levitation. The Aero Train in Japan hovers across its track redirecting airflow under the vehicle to create an air cushion similar to the function of an air hockey table . Hyperloop and Evacuated Tube Transports adopt these concepts to achieve frictionless supersonic travel.
The ETT travels in a vacuum-sealed tube with no air friction and uses magnetic levitation to suspend within the tube. Figure 1 illustrates some of the main components for pushing the capsule through the pipeline. The system uses linear motors along the tubes to initially accelerate the train much like a Maglev train, and the absence of air and friction allows for the capsule to coast along for most of the journey while using minimal additional energy. Magnetic generators at the end of the line slow down the capsules and even capture reusable energy by converting the pods’ kinetic energy into electricity .
Due to the difficulty of creating a perfect vacuum in a vast tunnel network, Musk proposes dropping the internal air level instead to only one-sixth of normal atmospheric pressure. Fluid friction is still reduced considerably, but Musk uses the remaining atmosphere to help propel and suspend the capsule in the tunnel. Figure 2 presents the main components of the Hyperloop system and how they differ from ETT. The primary difference is the presence of air and using that air to assist with propulsion. An air condenser proposed by Musk at the front of the vehicle directs airflow through the capsule and pushes it out the back and below. This system overcomes the air choke limit caused by the remaining atmosphere, and the capsule is able to levitate in the tunnel similar to the Aero Train .
Both Oster and Musk believe that the capsules could achieve up to Mach 1 and beyond from the magnetic propulsion and lack of friction. Because the capsules would travel so fast, the pipeline would have to remain relatively straight for most of the journey . Musk and Oster’s proposals require very precise design and advance technology in order to successfully operate. Due to lack of the advanced technology and actual simulation of these designs, engineers have many limitations they must overcome in design and development before people can begin to ride across the country at the speed of sound.
Limitations and Criticism
Many scholars and critics argue that proposals like Hyperloop and ETT are unrealistic or even impossible to create with our current level of technology or economical and political environment. While Elon Musk provides a thorough proposal for Hyperloop both technologically and economically, skeptics claim that he has overlooked important monetary factors to consider and has underestimated the total cost of construction and maintenance. Musk proposes that the Hyperloop would cost fewer than 6 billion dollars to construct compared to the California High Speed Rail that has a budget of 68 billion dollars . Table 2 on the previous page shows Musk’s breakdown of the expenses for constructing the Hyperloop from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Economists say that Musk has not fully considered the price to purchase the land for constructing the Hyperloop. In Table 2, Musk only allots 1 billion dollars for the cost of land. The economists speculate that the high-speed rail cost from Fresno to Bakersfield alone would cost 7 billion, and they propose that 100 billion dollars is a more a realistic figure for the Hyperloop . The price rises even further with an international vacuum train. For travelling across oceans such as from New York to London, researchers predict that an underwater tunnel for a vacuum train would cost from 25 to 50 million dollars per mile to construct .
Musk states in his document outlining Hyperloop that constructors can avoid land costs by building along the fairly straight and already state owned 1-5 freeway . However, the CHSR legislation has had to tackle many legal barriers that gradually increased the cost such as appealing to demands to build stations and track extensions at cities between Los Angeles and San Francisco . This presents an additional limitation. Current high-speed rails are able to reach around 350 miles per hour. However, if there are several intermediate stops that the trains must make in cities along the way, the train will hardly ever reach its top speed. Creating a straight shot from Los Angeles to San Francisco to reach the full 700 miles per hour potential would be impossible if intermediate cities demand to have their own stations .
Along with the economic and political limitations, there are also several design issues to consider. Travelling at extremely high speeds requires precise design and allows very little room for error. A very fast train line must avoid even the slightest curves in the track or pipeline or the passenger will undergo intense G-forces . The layout of the pipeline must remain straight while overcoming terrain obstacles like mountains and bodies of water. The Hyperloop would follow a relatively straight path up the I-5 freeway. However, following a straight line becomes more problematic on an international scale. To cross from one continent to the next, designers must develop a stable underwater tunneling system described earlier to travel across oceans. They must also account for varying and rugged terrain and environments that might not permit the particular conditions needed. For example, creating a straight path through a mountain range like the Rocky Mountains would require expensive manipulation of the landscape such as carving through the rock of the mountains .
While Musk takes precautions against earthquakes in his design, California is situated on a major fault line, and in the event of a disaster, the tube track could breach ruining the vacuum-sealed environment. A capsule travelling at 700 miles per hour toward a damaged tube segment would be catastrophic. A rupture in the pipeline would allow air to leak into the tube creating a denser atmosphere. For a capsule travelling near the speed of sound in a vacuum, suddenly entering regular atmosphere would be similar to hitting a brick wall . Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of plans like Hyperloop and ETT is the lack of actual simulation of these concepts. The feasibility of a supersonic capsule transport will remain uncertain until more tangible developments and testing of these ideas progress.
Creating a new standard of transportation with high-speed magnetic and vacuum transits both nationally and internationally would have many social, economical, and global repercussions. Many scholars and speculators predict both the positive and negative implications that technologies like the Hyperloop could have on our every day life. One of the main purposes of the Hyperloop is to connect two large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco together by an affordable and quick form of travel. The MIT civil engineering department researches the effects of current high-speed rail systems in countries like Japan and Germany, and they discovered that this connection creates a megaregion from two metropolitan areas. The two cities can link their labor force and consumer markets together to stimulate economic and industrial growth. The cities would have access to a more diverse labor market, and citizens would in turn have access to more specialized occupations. This makes job matching more efficient and increases productivity for industries and companies. Figure 3 displays three different megaregion areas created by high-speed rail routes including Musk’s proposed route for Hyperloop.
The rapid transit between Osaka and Tokyo has benefited employment and productivity particularly in the information exchange and tourism industries. Cities with similar concentration of business could also potentially benefit from a high-speed transportation system like the Hyperloop. However, these researchers also speculate that creating a megaregion from two cities could have a negative impact on the smaller communities in between and surrounding the main metropolitan areas. Economic growth and stimulation could possibly only come to the areas with access to the transit stations while areas separated still by long travel times could suffer from industry neglect .
Oster has a more optimistic prediction for the development and implementation of ETT. He speculates that ETT will eliminate oil reliance, enhance global security, reduce pollution, stimulate stagnant industries, and increase the global standard of living. Like Musk, Oster projects that the cost of an Evacuated Tube Transport would be just a fourth of the cost to construct a four-lane freeway, and the long-term benefits of building ETT would enormously outweigh the cost of construction and maintenance. He says the significant return of investment for constructing an ETT system would create millions of jobs and stimulate global and national economy by increasing market accessibility and the distribution of commodities and natural resources .
While high-speed train systems show potential economic repercussions, arguably the most significant impact of a new rapid and cost effective form of transportation like Hyperloop or ETT would be creating a broader global perspective for human existence and interaction. Recent technologies like the Internet and air travel have already begun closing the gaps on global separation among nations. Increasing global communication and human interaction among many cultures helps create a stronger human identity worldwide. People have the ability to share ideas and cultural perspective with other people more frequently as the Internet becomes more accessible and travelling abroad becomes more feasible. If these supersonic trains are possible, then travelling cross-country and around the world will become more feasible than ever. If the Hyperloop, ETT, and other new high-speed trains were as cost effective and affordable as they predict, then many people who could not afford the chance to travel internationally would now be able to travel around the world in a few hours. Having the ability to travel across the globe quickly and cheaply would allow people from many walks of life to meet and connect promoting global relations and understanding.
Our history in railroad transportation shows that we are continually finding new and faster ways to travel. Elon Musk and Daryl Oster present optimistic designs for a new form of transportation that could revolutionize how we live our lives and interact with the rest of the world. It is clear that these designs face many technological, economical, and political limitations that prohibit their creation presently. However, the need for a faster, cleaner, and more efficient form of transportation propels theses developments further, and the potential impact shown above for creating these supersonic trains dictates that these new designs and technology are worth pursuing and researching.
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Jeffrey is a junior at USC studying Electrical Engineering with an emphasis in power systems and minoring in Music Recording. His interests include music production and discovering new emerging technologies.
Related Links Brian Dodson, “Beyond the hype of Hyperloop: An analysis of Elon Musk’s proposed
Suggested Multimedia Applications Create a video outlining the effects of a megaregion phenomenon using examples like Osaka and Tokyo.
Glossary Aerodynamic: having shape that reduces drag from travelling through air.
Air choke limit: when an object travels through a tube, the air within the tube must travel around the object. This can cause clogs or choking in the tube when the air cannot properly pass through.
Air cushioning: using a pocket of air to hover slightly above the ground like a puck on an air hockey table.
G-Force: weight felt while undergoing acceleration. A person could die if he or she is exposed to intense g-forces.
Ground Effect: using lift caused by air passing over aerodynamic vehicle to hover over the ground and reduce friction.
Kinetic energy: energy found in an objects movement that can be converted into other forms of energy like electricity.
Linear Motors: motors that are positioned on the track and not on the vehicle.
Mach 1: unit of speed relative to the speed of sound, approximately 760.5 mph.
Magnetic suspension: levitation caused by magnetic fields.
Rolling friction: friction caused by wheels or a rotating object moving over another surface that creates an opposing force and limits how fast the object can go.
Superconductors: material that allows flow of electrical current with very little resistance at either very high or low temperatures.
Supersonic: faster than the speed of sound.
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Table 2: Elon Musk, “Hyperloop Alpha,” SpaceX Figure 1: Created by Jeffrey Eric Orr
Daryl Oster, Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies, www.et3.com
Figure 2: Created by Jeffrey Eric Orr
Elon Musk, “Hyperloop Alpha,” SpaceX Figure 3: Created by Jeffrey Eric Orr
Elon Musk, “Hyperloop Alpha,” SpaceX
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