US-based transportation technology company Virgin Hyperloop has announced that it has carried out a test of its ultra-fast transport system, known as a hyperloop, with human passengers for the first time.
Hyperloop is a sealed tube or system of tubes with low air pressure through which a pod (the vehicle for transportation) may travel substantially free of air resistance or friction. The Hyperloop could convey people or objects at airline or hypersonic speeds while being very energy efficient.
First test with humans
The test took place at the company’s DevLoop test track in the desert outside Las Vegas, US. Virgin Hyperloop’s chief technology officer and co-founder, Josh Giegel, and the head of passenger experience, Sara Luchian, were the first two passengers. They were transferred into an airlock after strapping into their seats in the gleaming white and red hyperloop pod of the company, dubbed Pegasus, as the air inside the enclosed vacuum tube was removed. Then the pod accelerated down the length of the path to a brisk 100 miles per hour (160 km/h), before slowing down to a stop.
It is an important achievement for Virgin Hyperloop, which was founded in 2014 on the premise of realizing the vision of Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk of a futuristic transportation system of magnetically levitating pods at speeds of up to 760 mph (1,223 km/h) traveling through almost airless tubes.
The test track for DevLoop is 500 meters long and 3.3 meters in diameter. Around 30 minutes from Las Vegas, the track is situated in the kind of desert that hyperloop pods could one day navigate in minutes. The company says it has performed over 400 tests on that route, but never before, until recently, with human passengers.
“No one has done anything close to what we’re talking about right now,” Jay Walder, CEO of Virgin Hyperloop said. “This is a full scale, working hyperloop that is not just going to run in a vacuum environment, but is going to have a person in it. No one has come close to doing it.”
The acceleration would feel similar to a plane taking off, Mr. Giegel said. Magnetic levitation helps push the pod which is the same technology used by bullet trains. The top speed of the China’s Shanghai Maglev, the fastest commercial bullet train, hovers at about 300 miles per hour (mph).
But the pod did not exceed the hyperloop’s theoretical maximum speed of 760 mph. Virgin Hyperloop projects that it will eventually get up to 670 mph with sufficient track, but the company’s record is 240 mph to date, which it reached in 2017.
Future of travel
Musk released his ‘alpha paper’ in 2013, which theorized that aerodynamic aluminum capsules loaded with passengers or cargo could be propelled at airliner speeds of up to 760 mph via an almost airless tunnel. These tubes could be constructed either within or between cities and raised on pylons or sunk beneath the earth.
He referred to it as a ‘fifth mode of transport’ and argued that it could help transform the way we live, work, trade and travel. A ride from US cities LA to San Francisco in just 30 minutes was the most eye-catching scenario he proposed. The idea caught the imaginations of the world’s engineers and investors.
Before changing its name to Hyperloop One in 2016 and then again to Virgin Hyperloop One after being purchased by Richard Branson’s group, Virgin Hyperloop was originally established as Hyperloop Technologies. With tens of millions of dollars of funding and a bold vision for hyperloop networks all over the globe, the company came out with high ambitions.
The hyperloop might be technically feasible, but the technology is still under development, critics argue. It has been called a “utopian vision” that would be difficult to accomplish financially. According to its supporters, it is one of those inventions that is also “just around the corner,” despite appearing outwardly to be years away from completion.
There are still a lot of questions about safety that need to be addressed. Experts have raised concerns about various aspects. ‘A hyperloop vehicle will travel even faster than high-speed rail, maybe even reaching 760 mph. It is very important to maintain safety at such high speeds, and all unforeseen disasters need to be engineered into the system. An earthquake? A crack in the vacuum tube? What if the train crashes through the tunnel somehow? They say that these incidents amplify the danger at such high speeds, and so safety needs to be paramount, they said.
No government in the world has awarded a contract or approved the development of a hyperloop system yet. How much it would cost to create a hyperloop is uncertain, but it would certainly be billions of dollars which could be another important challenge.
Another enormous challenge is the ability to maintain a vacuum in the tube, especially one which is hundreds of miles long. It has to decelerate and stop each time a pod arrives at a station. The airlock would then have to close, pressurize, and re-open. Then, before the next pod arrives, the pod must clear the airlock. The distance between pods will determine the velocity at which this happens. It would also be incredibly difficult to turn. A Virgin Hyperloop engineer once said that a hyperloop will require about six miles to perform a 90-degree turn at 600 mph.