Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

It’s the year 2020…

But where are the flying cars? And hyperloops? And other things we were promised?

Uber will deploy flying cars

When Uber Technologies Inc. pledged to deliver on a promise of the Jetsons, it gave itself just three years to do so. The company still intends to hold flight demonstrations in 2020, but it’s safe to say you will not be able to hail a flying Uber in the next year. The company continues to explore the concept with regulators. In 2019, Uber added a form of flying vehicle that’s not particularly cutting edge: It’s booking helicopter rides in New York City. In December, Uber said it was working with a startup, Joby Aviation, to develop “aerial ride-sharing” and set a deadline of 2023. Uber Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi tweeted: “Getting closer …”

We first heard about this in 2017, and in 2018 we were told that NASA was testing these babies. Since then, we have also heard of flying motorcycles and these weird, drone-like things, but as yet, no flying vehicles that aren’t planes or helicopters. Mark your calendars for 2023 and ask me again.

The first 60-mile hyperloop ride will take place

In 2013, Elon Musk outlined his vision for a new “fifth mode of transportation” that would involve zipping people through tubes at speeds as fast as 800 miles per hour. Several tech entrepreneurs heeded Musk’s call and went to work on such systems inspired by the billionaire’s specifications. In 2015, one of the leading startups predicted a hyperloop spanning about 60 miles would be ready for human transport by 2020. Rob Lloyd, then the CEO of Hyperloop Technologies, told Popular Science: “I’m very confident that’s going to happen.”

It hasn’t. His company, now called Virgin Hyperloop One, has a 1,600-foot test track in California and hopes to build a 22-mile track in Saudi Arabia someday. Musk has since experimented with hyperloops of his own, and even he has had to scale back his ambitions. Musk’s Boring Co. is building a so-called Loop system in Las Vegas, starting with a nearly mile-long track that consists of a narrow tunnel and Tesla cars moving at up to 155 miles per hour.

Man, I was enthusiastic for this, ever since 2015 when we first heard the word “hyperloop”. Skepticism was warranted, and the technology has evolved over time, but we’re still waiting.

Toyota will make fully self-driving cars

Auto and tech companies alike became convinced this decade that computers would soon be able to drive cars more reliably than people. In 2015, Toyota Motor Corp. made a companywide bet that it would have autonomous highway-driving cars on the road by 2020. It didn’t take long for the hype cycle to veer off course. In 2018, a pedestrian died after colliding with an Uber self-driving car. In 2020, Toyota’s Lexus brand will introduce a car capable of driving autonomously on the highway, but executives acknowledged that auto companies were “revising their timeline for AI deployment significantly.”

Honestly, I’ve probably been more skeptical of the many breathless claims about driverless cars than I’ve been about hyperloops. That skepticism was also warranted, though to be fair, various forms of autonomous vehicles have been on the road. They’re still not ready for mass market use, and probably won’t be for at least another decade, but they’re not vaporware, either. As above, check back with me in a couple of years and we’ll see where we are.

Where hyperloops are headed

Henry Grabar looks at trends in hyperloop development and notes an interesting trend.

Last year, I checked in with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a company that hopes to pioneer terrestrial transit at the speed of sound using a cadre of far-flung engineers collaborating on Google Docs. It has been two-plus years since HTT’s co-founder told Wired, “We’ve solved all the technical issues,” but the team has yet to test a full-scale prototype. That hasn’t stopped HTT from getting government funding from Ohio to the Chinese hinterland.

Something interesting is happening as HTT and other firms move forward with their plans: The Hyperloop is starting to look more familiar than space-age. The HTT car, for example, is not the bobsled-size carriage imagined by Musk, but closer to the size of a needle-nosed Shinkansen train car. That design choice brings the idea of Hyperloop infrastructure away from Musk’s initial vision of a nimble, easy-to-build pipeline and closer to the costly, time-consuming right-of-way whose pursuit characterizes the construction of roads and railways.

The vehicle isn’t the only part of the Hyperloop that’s coming to resemble more traditional transportation options.

Recently, I sat down with Josh Geigel, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Virgin Hyperloop One, the more serious Hyperloop venture. What Hyperloop One has going for it is an actual test track where reporters have been invited to watch a pod achieve speeds of 240 miles per hour.

But that’s just the technology. As a transportation solution, Hyperloop One is starting to lay down some parameters on what will and won’t work. (It may be the influence of CEO Jay Walder, who ran transit systems in Hong Kong and New York.) Carrying small numbers of people, as the initial concept aimed to do? “I can’t imagine a system moving less than 4,000–5,000 people an hour and paying for itself,” Geigel said. Routes stretching across the country? The sweet spot, said Geigel, would be under 200 miles.

When Geigel outlined how his tubes would load up 16,000 passengers per hour on its first projected route near Mumbai—a carrying capacity approaching the Tokyo–Osaka Shinkansen, the world’s busiest high-speed train line—he explained that the system would launch “convoys” of “pods” that would leave the hub together and wind up in different destinations.

In short, Hyperloop One’s project is beginning to sound a bit like a high-speed rail line. Not coincidentally, Geigel is now estimating the system costing 60 to 70 percent the cost of high-speed rail—not, as Musk once projected, 10 percent or less.

Yeah, that’s not what I was expecting, either. Still pretty cool, but not what I was envisioning. How much that may change the competitive landscape for high speed rail versus hyperloop, I couldn’t say. Clearly, we’re going to need one of these things to finish getting built so we can do a real comparison. Hurry up, y’all.