From Munich to Hamburg in 45 minutes – the Hyperloop might make this possible one day. Its high-speed capsules could soon be carrying goods and passengers. Zero-emission, climate-neutral transportation at the speed of sound. We explain here what lies behind this futuristic transport concept.
To begin with, it sounded to many people like a whacky story from a Jules Verne novel when, just a few years ago, the concept of the ‘Hyperloop’ appeared in the media and was discussed as a transport option of the future: a passenger-carrying capsule that rushed along a tube, traveling hundreds of kilometers at lightning speed.
It is true that the first ideas for what we now call ‘Hyperloop’ originated precisely when Jules Verne was writing his science fiction novels. In the 19th century pneumatic tube systems had just been invented, and engineers in England took the idea a step further – wondering how they could transport not only mailbags and parcels, but also people. Since that time, people in technology and research all over the world have tried again and again to develop the idea and have come up with a range of concepts. They included test routes, technical drawings, and even vacuum tubes, just like we see today. Yet none of those designs made it past the drawing board. The whole thing remained a vision.
But then along came Elon Musk. The founder of Tesla and SpaceX literally gave new drive to the idea of catapulting human beings along a tube in capsules.
In recent years, trains have raced from one speed record to the next. The current record is around 575 km/h, but speeds of over 600 km/h have been achieved on test tracks. Yet one factor acts as a natural upper speed limit: the air. There comes a point when the air resistance prevents rail-based systems from traveling any faster.
However, Elon Musk is not to be put off. The visionary Tesla boss has set his sights on “superfast travel.” In a 2013 white paper that received a lot of attention, Musk proposed the concept of the Hyperloop as “a new mode of transport – a fifth mode,” that could travel at over 1,200 km/h (760 mph). That is, it would operate at near sonic speeds, and thus faster than a passenger aircraft.
Musk envisaged that the air, which causes resistance, should be eliminated as far as possible. The transport capsules (pods) would glide along a tube containing a partial vacuum. Accelerated by an electric motor, the capsule could, for example, glide along on the magnetic field of an electromagnet. Researchers see a Hyperloop as being especially energy-efficient, consuming per kilometer and passenger only a fraction of the energy needed to power an airplane, and less than an electric car.
The proponents of Hyperloops – most of all Elon Musk – see their advantages over air and rail travel in the following areas:
In view of climate change, Hyperloop researchers point out that the high-speed pods would not produce any emissions and could run on renewable energy.
Critics argue that Hyperloops would be too expensive and would not make sense in Europe, which already has high-speed trains. They are concerned that an overground tube construction on stilts would have a major impact on the landscape, including its visual appearance. Tunnels, on the other hand, are hugely expensive. And then there are skeptics, who see the ambitious project as unrealistic and believe that it will fail when it comes to technical implementation.
Around the world, several companies and startups are working on realizing this futuristic new form of transport. There are also several student teams who have already built various prototypes and demonstrated them in a 1.2 kilometer-long partially evacuated tube at the four “SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competitions” held so far.
from the Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT), Karlsruhe’s University of Applied Sciences and the University of Stuttgart; “Swissloop”
from ETH Zürich; and “Delft Hyperloop”
from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Students from these groups will present their Hyperloop designs and report on their research and development work at an event at the IAA Mobility 2021.
There are still some challenges to be overcome before the first passengers can ride in a Hyperloop.
Until now there has only been one manned test, but it only covered a short route and the capsule carrying two passengers was accelerated to the relatively low speed of 172 km/h.
The as yet unanswered questions include the energy supply and the exact designs for the safety systems, plus the tube itself. “Building the tube is by far the biggest issue, I think,” says Puck Gerritse from Delft Hyperloop. After all, the tube has to withstand the vacuum. That places huge demands on the materials. “It can’t be a cheap tube,” Gerritse points out.
Instead, it will have to be made of steel or reinforced concrete, which makes the scheme expensive. In addition, the tubes for the planned routes will have to be several thousand kilometers long. And how will space be made for the Hyperloop in cities where even now there is hardly any more room available? At present all these questions are waiting for a solution.
It is still unclear if and when, precisely, the future of the Hyperloop will begin. However, a few pointers exist. For instance, Virgin Hyperloop has set itself the goal of carrying its first passengers via Hyperloop from 2030. Hardt Hyperloop is planning to do the same as of 2034, and the Dutch company Fracht intends to launch transportation in Hyperloops in 2029.
The vision of the future held by the Hyperloop researchers looks like this: the ultrafast transport capsules could cover the route from Munich to Hamburg, for example, in about 45 minutes. Today’s ICE express trains take at least six hours. The Hyperloop should take just over half an hour to travel from Amsterdam to Paris.
That would have enormous effects on society, according to Puck Gerritse. “You could live in Amsterdam and work in Paris.” Commuting would have a whole new meaning. Distances would shrink.
“What we envision for the future is a world much more connected,” Gerritse says. “We would have much more opportunities to go somewhere.”
Perishable or delicate cargoes – such as fresh foods, medicines or donated organs – could be transported from A to B much faster than they are today.
However, the speed envisaged by Elon Musk, of 1,200 km/h, has so far remained a dream. The current speed record is held by the students from TUM Hyperloop. In the 2019 SpaceX Hyperloop competition they succeeded in accelerating their own prototypes to 482 km/h.
If you want to find out at first hand what Hyperloop developers are doing right now to make high-speed capsules a reality, “Hyperloop – The Fifth Mode of Transportation” is the name of the panel discussion with four students on the Vision Stage at the IAA Mobility 2021 (September 8, 11:00 h).