Spectators in the Nevada desert have witnessed the first public test of a Hyperloop test vehicle as it accelerated from zero to over 100 miles per hour in a few seconds before running out of track.
The vehicle, built by Hyperloop One (formerly Hyperloop Technologies), is intended to show off that the technology publicized by SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk, is viable. The firm wants to build a system that could make the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in around 30 minutes.
The plan for "Hyperloop" involves using a variant of maglev technology to power the passenger and cargo capsules, but the entire system is enclosed in a steel tube that has been pumped out to produce a near vacuum. The reduced air pressure allows the vehicles to move at nearly the speed of sound while using very little propulsive power.
Today's test didn't use vacuum tubes, and instead was an open-air test to show the speed and propulsion system's viability. The next stage will be to build a fully enclosed test track to iron out the engineering challenges in getting a full Hyperloop up and running.
All of the technology needed to make Hyperloop transport a reality exists, but it's putting it all together in a working system that's the tricky part. At today's demonstration Hyperloop One said it had secured VC development funding and partnerships with firms including engineering conglomerate AECOM to investigate using the system for cargo transportation in Los Angeles and Long Beach ports.
"AECOMs partnership with Hyperloop One has the potential to transform the movement of both people and freight," said Mike Burke, AECOM's chairman and CEO. "Our expertise working with cities, building port infrastructure and delivering highly challenging transit projects provides the depth of knowledge essential for safely and effectively developing and maximizing a new mode of transportation."
Shifting cargo is going to be the first stage of Hyperloop One's plans, but the firm also plans to start moving people on the system once the final details are worked out. It has entered into a feasibility study with FS Links for a pilot scheme linking cities in Sweden and Finland.
"We are delighted to be partnering with Hyperloop One to create entirely new possibilities for living and working on a Hyperloop-connected corridor," said Mårten Fröjdö, CEO of FS Links. "The sheer speed of Hyperloop will provide the Nordic region and Scandinavia with a huge economic and employment boost."
The elephant in the room among all the hype is, however, cost. Building a Hyperloop system is going to be very expensive – Musk's estimate for the Los Angeles to San Francisco route comes in at $6bn, a little beyond VC funds and most private companies, making government help seem sensible.
The US is currently considering putting billions into high-speed rail links across the country, but rail is an old – if proven – technology. What Hyperlink One and its competitors want is a slice of that government money and it's testing like this that could get it for them.
But beware the hype in Hyperloop. Over the coming months companies will be spouting lines about how soon this technology is coming, but there are still significant hurdles to be overcome before a viable business can be built. ®