The Hyperloop – Not just San Fran to LA

By Nick • Energy, Hyperloop • 18 Aug 2013

Elon Musk made good on his promise and published the initial designs for a new transport technology called the Hyperloop. It has many similarities to the Vacuum Maglev concept I talked about here; it involves vehicles travelling in tubes at high speed. There are also some key differences:

  • The vacuum is less ‘vacuum-y’ than the ET3 approach – 1/1000 atmospheres vs around 1/100,000.
  • It’s a bit slower and less efficient.
  • Elon Musk is proposing it, and he’s the multi-billionaire founder of the two most innovative transport companies in the world: Tesla – making electric cars that actually win; and SpaceX – making, you know, spaceships. Real ones, that deliver stuff to the international space station. He’s pretty badass, and he’s considering building a demonstration system.
  • It’s presented as a relatively cohesive overall concept, in one place – more so than anything I’ve seen for ET3.

If nothing else, you should be enthusiastic about this. I explained why I think a hyperloop-equivalent would be such a good thing in my earlier post. Here’s the short list:

  • The Hyperloop is fast – faster than a commercial jet.
  • The Hyperloop is really efficient and can easily run on electricity.
  • The Hyperloop is convenient; it can go anywhere trains go, so there’s no need to take a journey from the city centre just to get to the airport.

All of this has enthused me to come back to some work that’s been gathering virtual dust in my dropbox for about a year, looking at what I think are some really important technical and commercial considerations for a Hyperloop.

I’ll start here with one of the commercial criteria – route selection – and leave the others for later posts.

Like a train or car, the Hyperloop needs a lot of fixed infrastructure before you can send the first vehicle… but once you have that infrastructure you can send a lot of vehicles without needing to build any more track. This means you should focus on journeys that are common to a lot of people – kind of like a big freeway.

The Hyperloop is also best suited to journeys where being fast and efficient makes a big difference. This makes it worth the effort of going to a Hyperloop station and getting onboard… rather than the alternative of just walking, driving, or taking a bus (or calling an autonomous car), any of which would probably be better for a journey of a block or so.

Finally, we should start with routes that aren’t too long. The route doesn’t earn any money until it’s complete, and it’s going to cost a lot to build. The faster something is in operation and proven, the better.

These factors mean we should focus on high traffic routes of medium distance… and it’s no coincidence that these tend to be the routes where there is a lot of air traffic. This is great, because it means we can use air traffic stats to find candidates.

Musk’s Hyperloop proposal focuses on the San Francisco – Los Angeles route. This is partly for comparison with the proposed California High Speed Rail project (which is basically pretty rubbish), and partly because Musk regularly commutes between the two regions (which must ALSO be pretty rubbish)… but as it happens (no coincidence), it’s also a pretty good candidate for a first Hyperloop project. The two cities are about 600km apart, and the air route between them carries around 6.5 Million passengers a year.

It’s interesting to contrast this with some of the other major air routes around the world, as I’ve done below. Apologies for the ugly chart, you can click to see the full thing. What jumps out immediately is the route from the South Korean capital, Seoul, to the South Korean vacation destination of Jeju. More than 10 Million passengers/year, and only 450km as the crow flies. However, it would also need to cross about 70km of the South China Sea, so isn’t a smart pick for a first effort. Hong Kong – Taipei is out for the same reason.

NOTE: The below chart uses airport-airport data, when what’s most interesting is population-area to population-area data. I’ll revise this; some routes will see significantly increased ‘demand’.

RouteCompareChart

 

Remembering our criteria of ‘short and high demand’, the (superficially) best places are in the top left of this chart. There are plenty of candidates that seem at least as good as the SF-LA route. No surprise that several of them are in Japan, where they already have an extremely well developed high speed rail system… though these are the air passenger journeys with an awesome high speed rail network, so obviously that’s not going to solve everything.

This chart is far from exhaustive, and it actually masks another very important consideration in route optimisation. However it does show that if such a hyperloop is viable in the SF:LA case, it’s probably viable many other places as well. California should embrace the concept if it’s to stay true to its heritage as an innovation leader. Japan (who are light years ahead in rail and maglev technology) could easily do it first, as could China (who have the need and are massively expanding their own high speed rail network). The Boeing of the next era of transport might well not be in the USA.

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