The Hyperloop Just Completed a Major Test. But the Real Challenges Lie Ahead

Jul 15, 2017

Hyperloop One this week announced that it completed the first full-scale test of its high-speed transportation system, a move the company hailed as the burgeoning technology's "Kitty Hawk moment."

The test vehicle only reached 70 miles per hour, a tenth of the company's eventual target speed. But the firm felt assured enough to set another phase of testing for later this year, when they hope to reach 250 miles per hour. Eventually, the system could reach a top speed of 700 miles per hour, nearly the speed of sound.

The Hyperloop's potential velocity has helped it captivate the public's imagination ever since Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk popularized the concept in 2012. But the proposed system, a sort of high-speed train that uses aerodynamic pods propelled through a vacuum cylinder, is not just about speed, according to many of the people developing it since Musk open-sourced the idea. It's about changing how we think about moving people and cargo, a $1.48 trillion industry in the United States alone.

"The implications tie back to the founding vision that we’ve had of turning cities into metro stops, changing the meaning of where you live and where you work, unlocking economic opportunity in areas that might be currently locked away by lack of infrastructure or lack of transportation solutions," Hyperloop One co-founder Shervin Pishevar told the Verge.

Other companies, like Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Arrivo, are working on their own designs.

Phillip Plotch, a political science professor and director of the public administration master's program at Saint Peter's University, told Fortune that as new transportation technologies have emerged throughout history, they have allowed humans to radically alter the landscape.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the shift from horse transit to elevated trains and so on have allowed cities to get bigger, meaning people could live a bit further from their jobs. Then cars came along.

"Everything exploded," said Plotch. "Now you can live 20 miles away and cities can be 1,000 square miles instead of a couple. Hyperloop changes that again because you can live hundreds if not thousands of miles away. You could work in New York City and live in Virginia or Boston."

Indeed, with companies like Hyperloop One touting nearly supersonic travel speeds, the need to reside close to where you work could be completely eliminated. A trip in a Hyperloop tube from Los Angeles to San Francisco — a six-hour car ride — could take just over 30 minutes at the speeds engineers are promising. States like Colorado and Texas are exploring the technology, watching its development closely to see if they want to invest.

Such a dramatic shift would result in major changes to the local economies' surrounding hyperloop stations, Plotch said.

"It would be the most valuable real estate in the country. Cities and neighborhoods that don't have hyperloop will lose out in an economic race," he said. "All cities compete for jobs, entertainment, tourists, and so on. That's why every city wants an airport. Train stations. Highways."

Other experts agree.

"You look at the high speed bullet train in China or other parts of the world — any place there's a transit hub, they have an economic vitality, economic improvement," Dane Egli, a senior advisor at the U.S. Department of Energy, told Fortune. Egli added that he, along with the Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership, which he serves as president, is advocating for President Donald Trump to include hyperloop funding in his proposed $1 trillion infrastructure plan.

"We've met with Capitol Hill, staff on the Transportation Infrastructure Committee [of Congress], the Pentagon, Homeland Security, the State Department, Department of Transportation," Egli said. "They were unanimously excited, unanimously interested. unanimously curious. I'm drafting a letter to [the White House] right now. We have not briefed [Trump] directly, but I hope to do so in the next three to six months. I don't know if Elon would be there with us."

Musk served on a council of business leaders advising the President, but recently quit after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord.

Despite the enthusiasm of Egli and other hyperloop advocates, there are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical. A number of scientists and engineers have described the concept as impractical and expensive. It's still unclear how traveling in a Hyperloop pod might affect a person physiologically. And miles of new track will have to be laid, a huge logistical challenge that won't be easily solved. While the potential economic benefits are there for cities willing to embrace the technology, others caution it may not be a wise investment.

"[Hyperloop companies] are trying to sell the investors on it. Often times, these things are just a sales pitch. They're trying to get people excited about the benefits of the the technology. I think states and cities should not bend over backwards without knowing what it means," said Plotch, before making an analogy to a Simpsons episode in which a traveling salesman convinces Springfield residents to construct a faulty and unnecessary monorail while basic city needs are ignored. "You can lose site of what's important," Plotch said, "and end up being a flawed city."

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