Hyperloop: Vehicle concept revolutionizes transportation speed

Within the past 100 years, transportation methods have exponentially increased in speed and fluidity. From boats, to cars, to planes, to space travel, there have been major breakthroughs in terms of fuel and engine efficiency, design, and speed of travel from one location to another, and there’s about to be another breakthrough — the Hyperloop.

The Hyperloop is a system that would allow people to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco, which would take five and a half hours by car, in a mere 35 minutes. It sounds amazing, and also like something out of science fiction. But Elon Musk, most known for SpaceX and Tesla Motors, has been trying to make science fiction into science fact for the past few years, hosting an open SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition to see who can design and build the best Hyperloop pod.

Here at Carnegie Mellon, we have our own Hyperloop design team, which placed in the top 30 out of over 1,300 teams in January 2016 and is looking to take home the title in the competition’s final on-track competition in January 2017. In a 57-page paper entitled “Hyperloop Alpha” that Musk posted on the SpaceX website, he wrote, “The Hyperloop (or something similar) is, in my opinion, the right solution for the specific case of high traffic city pairs that are less than about 1500 km or 900 miles apart.

Around that inflection point, I suspect that supersonic air travel ends up being faster and cheaper.” The technology to make a Hyperloop seems far out, and as one HowStuffWorks article describes it, “It’s sort of like traveling in a bullet through a shotgun barrel partly using technology from an air hockey game.” The Hyperloop appears to be a cross between a train and a plane, with pods traveling through steel tubes mounted on reinforced concrete pylons spaced out 100 feet apart that can withstand Californian earthquakes.

In Musk’s own words, “This is where things get tricky.” Musk has gone through a number of potential solutions for this feat of physics, only to rule most out. Using powerful fans to push the pods would create too much unwanted friction within the tubes, slowing the pods down. Using electromagnetic suspension would require a perfect vacuum within the tubes, which is near impossible with the amount of traffic that would occur in and out of the tubes each day and would be ruined with even the slightest crack in the tube. Instead, Musk is proposing using two elevated tubes, one North and one South, which would travel parallel to Interstate 5.

The tubes would have reduced air pressure inside, estimated to be one-sixth of the air pressure on Mars, to reduce drag within the tube from the pods. The goal is to keep the tube tracks as low-tech as possible, instead focusing on the design of the pods to acquire most of the speed. A key feature of the pod designs is to have them with metal skis with magnets on the bottom that ride on a cushion of air pumped through the skis. The initial takeoff of the pods would be due to an electromagnetic pulse to the bottom of the skis. Along the track, linear induction motors will keep the pods at a constant speed, getting their power from a combination of batteries and solar panels placed on top of the tubes.

As with any transportation vehicle, passenger comfort and safety are the top priority. There will be emergency exits placed all along the tube, and pods would be timed so that they leave one at a time. Some of the downsides so far are that the pods will be very cozy and may induce claustrophobia, and there has been no mention of a bathroom so far. Although, standing up in a vehicle going that fast may not be the best idea anyway. With some of the brightest young minds working on this problem, the Hyperloop may very well be a reality in our lifetime. Regardless, this concept is revolutionizing the way people view travel and transportation, and may open the vein for other possibilities.

Transportation plays such a large role from scales of local commerce to international trade. Having safe and fast transportation can drastically change the world.