Technology Update – The Future Of Travel?

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What is Hyperloop?

Hyperloop is a proposed transport system in which passengers are fired through vacuum tubes at speeds exceeding 750mph (1,000km/h). This revolutionary concept is the brainchild of Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who first published his white paper in 2013 outlining the potential for airtight tubes to propel pods at these speeds, and he set the challenge to anyone and everyone who wanted to try and build this technology.

By pumping air out of the tubes to reduce resistance, high speeds can be achieved whilst using less energy than a train. Prototype pods have been tested running along magnetic tracks, and the overall idea is to dramatically reduce travel times over long distances, for example, a Hyperloop journey from Edinburgh to London would take roughly 32 minutes.

Elon Musk isn’t directly paying the firms he has challenged to design the prototypes, but he has committed funding to a series of tests, to take place in August of this year. More than 20 non-commercial groups are currently designing Hyperloop pods, including the MIT team, recent winners of a competition run by SpaceX to guarantee their funding. Of course, as with any revolutionary and disruptive technology, there are a lot of challenges to overcome; the barriers to Hyperloop becoming reality are huge, and it’s not just about the technology.

 
A straight shooter

Christopher Merian, chief engineer on MIT’s design team highlighted the very real challenge that faces the Hyperloop concept in general – it can’t handle corners very well, something that may not be of great surprise considering the rate at which it travels. So with this in mind, the route from San Francisco to Los Angeles would have to be practically straight, which would mean it would cut through some of the world’s most naturally beautiful sights, and thousands of homes.

A simple work around for this would be to move the proposed location of Hyperloop to a less strenuous regulatory environment, and this is what Philippe Kirschen, MIT’s team captain believes will be an eventuality. If this is to be the case, it is hard to imagine anywhere in the US that would be suitable for Hyperloop, taking into consideration the extraordinary pay-outs required for those whose lives would be uprooted.

 
So where will the future of travel head first?

One company has proposed building the first working model of the Hyperloop system in Slovakia, the technology capital of Europe. The proposed route would be used to connect Bratislava, Vienna and Budapest, helping to “Incentivize collaboration and innovation within Slovakia and throughout Europe”, as stated by Dirk Ahlborn, chief executive officer of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT). The proposal itself has been agreed upon by the Slovakian government, and now the process of deciding on a route and implementing the technology begins. Slovakian newspaper Pravda broke this news, and further reported that the government and HTT have agreed to meet within the next 270 days to continue these discussions. According to Wired, Ahlborn expects Slovakia’s Hyperloop to cost between $200m to $300m and tobe completed by 2020.

 
How might this affect us?

Hypothetically speaking, let’s imagine an agreement has been made for the proposed San Francisco to Los Angeles route. It’s operational, it’s safe and it is spectacular, except it isn’t for everybody. An extremely conservative estimate for the build costs proposed by Mr Musk is in the region of $6bn, leading a lot of critics to compare Hyperloop to Concord; a fantastic technological innovation that ultimately failed due to regulations – it wasn’t able to travel at supersonic speeds over land – and of course its lack of profitability. A return ticket on Concord would set you back thousands, and was eventually not deemed worthwhile for a few hours of travel. How much would a ticket on Hyperloop cost?

 
The pod designed by MIT is capable of carrying up to 20 passengers at a time, however unless Hyperloop is able to handle a great number of pods leaving in very quick succession, the ticket prices will need to be monumental to justify the operating and design costs. Furthermore, if the route from San Francisco to Los Angeles is realised, it will be in direct competition with all other forms of transport between those cities, including the California High Speed Rail network, due to open in 2025. With a journey time of two hours and fourty minutes, and a carrying capacity of a thousand passengers per train, the tickets will be considerably cheaper, in turn leaving Hyperloop an option for the rich only, leading to a lack of public support.

 
Will this affect video conferencing?

Realistically, with the barriers that currently stand between the dream and reality of Hyperloop, your day to day business isn’t likely to change any time soon. The proposition of having a meeting with important clients hundreds of miles away within 30 minutes may seem appealing, but with all of the barriers currently in place before this technology becomes viable, including building permission and prohibitive costs, video conferencing will be a much more appealing solution for a long time to come. Not only will it remain far cheaper, it will still be quicker – a video call takes moments, and doesn’t require a strong stomach!

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