Hyperloop is becoming a reality; the question is less about how fast it can go, and more about whether we want to ride on it.
Hypothetical Thanksgiving Day Conversation, October 2020:
“So, you think Mom will make it for dinner?”
“She says she has things to do, and may not get here on time…”
“C’mon, Montreal is just half an hour away…”
“Yeah but you know her— I think she’d rather take the long way here…”
“What? Drive?? At this day and age? Tell her to just get on the Hyperloop!”
While the concept of a tube transport system has been germinating for quite some time, it took the technogeek-celebrity status of one Elon Musk to generate current interest. His 2013 white paper outlined his vision for a game-changing transport system from LA to San Francisco that was fast, safe, cheap and environmentally-friendly (and along the way savvily turning the clunky term “Human Vacuum Tube Transport” into the elegant—and perhaps trademarkable--“Hyperloop”).
Numerous universities, research entities and tech corporations have participated in the open-source trials, racing to come up with the best working prototype. Corporations have been set up in the hopes of partnering with governments or the private sector in developing these systems in different locales.
And while hurdles still exist regarding design and integration into a working public transportation system, there is understandably great anticipation in a potentially revolutionary mode of transportation. The public has been entranced with visions of whooshing across cities and continents, defying geography and weather, and in no time at all.
Canada has thrown its technology hat into the ring, courtesy of TransPod, a Toronto-based company that promises to have a design up and running as early as 2020. TransPod envisions a Toronto-Montreal corridor that cuts the 5-hour commute (or cargo transport) to a 30-minute trip.
Dianna Lai is the Communications Director of TransPod, and she explains why their company sees the need to introduce a new form of transportation.
“We want to connect people, cities and businesses with sustainable and high-speed transportation that can re-imagine the way we live and work,” Ms. Lai says. “By shrinking distances, we can increase the exchange of people and goods, maximize efficiency for businesses like cargo transport, and create opportunities for urban growth.”
Aside from North America, projects are being discussed all over the globe: Scandinavia, Northern Europe, Russia and the Gulf States are all expressing interest in similar ventures, recognizing that there may indeed be promise in a new transportation system that is faster, more economically viable and less taxing on the environment.
Because the science is indeed sexy (Levitating magnets! Travel through a frictionless vacuum! Speeds of up to 1000km/h!), much of the hype (pun intended) has been in the development of these technologies: what design can make the concept go as fast as possible, through the best-constructed tunnel, using the cleanest power source?
But before we adopt Hyperloop as a mass transit system, we have to fundamentally answer the questions that no technology can innovate, or no design can overcome-- the presumptive human passenger. Essentially:
Can we ride on something with so much speed? And perhaps more importantly: would we want to?
Hyperloop at a Glance
•Technology similar to MagLev trains, is used to suspend and move the pods along the tube track, speeding up or slowing down in computer-controlled bursts
•“Green” sources for power, like solar cells, generate pod motion as well as life support and lighting
•Proposed routes: LA-San Francisco, LA- Las Vegas, Paris- Amsterdam, Toronto-Montreal, Stockholm-Helsinki, Abu Dhabi-Dubai, Russia -China
•Estimated Costs: from $7B (Elon Musk’s estimate) up to $100B (NY Times 2013 estimate)
What’s Good for the Rollercoaster is Bad for Hyperloop
As anyone who has gone on a rollercoaster can attest, it’s not the speed that delivers the excitement, but the sudden changes in speed or direction. So for Hyperloop, the concern for the passengers isn't about how they can tolerate the maximum speeds once aboard, it's going to be how they will manage the forces involved in acceleration, deceleration and direction changes. We need to address these rapid changes because, to achieve such speeds, the passenger has to endure them in magnitudes much more drastic than those felt in amusement park thrill rides.
The usual way to accelerate or decelerate is to do it in a single, massive push, much like flooring the gas pedal or slamming on the brakes. To reach the required escape velocities, astronauts experience around 3g's (three times the earth's gravity) during launches; fighter pilots may have to withstand the momentary effects of up to 9g’s in rapid climbs or dives—the effects of which can go way beyond merely reaching for the barf bag. Pilots or astronauts who are in peak physical condition have been known to black out under these amplified pressure conditions—what about the average commuter then?
Kevin Shoemaker, a professor at Western University, has done extensive studies on the blood flow from the heart and to the brain, and in particular how forces of acceleration and deceleration can affect them. He agrees that while there will be physiological issues, they are not insurmountable.
"Most human beings can tolerate forces of up to 2g's," Dr. Shoemaker says. "To address the potential problems of linear acceleration, we don't have to make every passenger wear fighter-pilot G-suits. Keeping them seated facing in the direction of the track, for example, can minimize the effects of linear acceleration."
The solution TransPod designers envision to parcel out these intervals throughout the entire route is, for example, targeting acceleration ‘bursts' of around 0.1g, similar to what we would feel on an accelerating subway. By gently tapping on the gas or the brake, it's hoped that much like in aircraft take-offs and landings, these changes would be minimized to tolerable levels.
In fact, it’s any deviation from a straight line that would have a much greater effect to the passenger. Termed as angular momentum by physicists, these are the forces which again make the twists and turns in rollercoasters exciting; even non-thrill-seekers experience this when negotiating a sharp curve. Any deviation in direction can, therefore, make the subway rider lose his/her balance; for instance, vehicles with high centers of gravity can even topple over.
Current high-speed trains have a tilting (or canting) mechanism where inertial forces are mitigated by leaning in the direction of the curve. Like a cyclist banking during a turn or the elevation on the outside part of an automobile racetrack, this to a degree counteracts these rotational forces. TransPod has incorporated self-canting specifications in its prototypes to address lateral acceleration. But even with these mechanisms, Ms. Lai admits that deviating from the theoretical straight line –and the effects of angular momentum— will impact the speeds at which their designs will run.
“We do not want to go beyond 0.4g of lateral acceleration, and as the geography will dictate any track curvatures, we will have to adjust our speeds accordingly.”
It May be Safe, But Will it be Comfortable?
Overcoming these issues are essentially just the beginning; because for something to be truly considered mass transit, it should be not only safe but also comfortable - not just for the business traveler, but also for the grandmother, the toddler, or one who has perhaps a medical condition. Not everyone will ride something simply because it’s fast, especially if the trade-off is a rough or uncomfortable commute.
Designers at TransPod have incorporated ergonomics into their design models and prototypes because they do recognize that a relaxed and accessible commuter mindset is essential to people wanting to try something new.
“This is one of our key considerations at TransPod,” Ms. Lai says. “Our design ensures that ride will be even more comfortable than what you experience on an aircraft or a train. We are integrating some key elements into our levitation system to handle the amount of vibrations this new system will face at a high speed.”
The ergonomic design may go beyond just creating comfortable seating. Professor Alan Salmoni surmises that because we are dealing with a new paradigm regarding high speeds and forces, we may have to revisit the possible effects of repetitive movement and vibrating frequencies, either from the motion of the passenger car, or the mechanisms and engines which power it.
"At these speeds, we have limited studies on things we now take for granted, like the vibratory effects, whether in short-term or long-term on the human body," Dr. Salmoni explains. "Now while the effects are indeed negligible for passengers riding on the bullet trains, for example, we aren't really sure about these effects at much higher speeds, or if there are more intense vibratory frequencies affecting the human body."
“Particularly if there’s a hidden medical condition, like weakened blood vessels, or if the person is prone to retinal detachment…would they be at a higher risk? I honestly can’t say.”
Dr. Shoemaker agrees and proposes that medical clearances that are obtained before air travel should also be required for the presumptive Hyperloop traveler. In fact, he sees the continued development of Hyperloop as an area to further his research interests.
“I would love to volunteer to get on one of these (pods) and bring all my instruments and make measurements of how the human body will react to these sudden changes in speed or direction.”
Even if We Want to Ride it, Will it be Built?
While some economic projections promise that Hyperloop will be cheaper in the long run, the investment in the infrastructure will mean an infusion of massive amounts of capital. Estimates vary wildly because calculations would have to include the costs outside of building the track, for example, the land has to be appropriated for the system, and urban planners need to be consulted as to where stations should be installed. And to make systems like Hyperloop a reality, governments and communities have to be totally committed to their development.
Companies like TransPod recognize and understand the ‘wait and see' attitude that is prevalent among potential stakeholders, particularly with technologies that are innovative, disruptive and of course expensive. Because of this, TransPod has been engaging in discussions with governments about the best approach for implementing this system, based on their perceived needs.
One initial application, for example, is for freight transport. Not only will this highlight the economic benefits of transporting goods at a much faster rate, but it can also begin to familiarize the public with the system and aid the transition of eventually putting passengers on board.
The 21st century has led to a more nuanced view in developing new transportation systems. An increased awareness of the environment, as well as the study of existing social conditions, demand that any development should be sustainable, that it can offer the greatest economic benefit, is accessible to the most number of people, and helps reduce environmental consequences. Paradoxically, this initial expense is what deters governments, investors, and industries from readily buying into radically different technologies.
Perhaps those are the ultimate questions surrounding Hyperloop: will we be willing to build it, and will we use it? Ms. Lai says that TransPod is hopeful and confident that the answers will be resoundingly in the affirmative.
“We currently have the technological know-how, resources, and brilliant minds around the world working to bring Hyperloop to life, and it will happen within the next 5 to 10 years. The sooner they realize this fact, recognize the benefits Hyperloop brings, and work with companies like ours to develop and build Hyperloop into the infrastructure, the sooner we’ll be able to reap the environmental and economic benefits.”