When Governor Jerry Brown pushed for high speed rail to connect LA and San Francisco, Tesla and SpaceX chief Elon Musk said he could create a cheaper and faster alternative: the Hyperloop.
Musk's concept would take people from point A to point B at hundreds of miles per hour, through a tube. Now two LA-based companies are trying to make that vision a reality.
Virgin Hyperloop One, based in downtown LA's Arts District, has some 200 people working under one roof to develop the technology. Its biggest investor is Dubai Ports World, which operates marine and inland trade terminals, and is eyeing Hyperloop as transit for people and freight.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), based in Playa Vista, has a showroom with a small staff that showcases sleek renderings and life-size prototypes of sections of the system. HTT’s business model involves partnering with other companies on developing Hyperloop with a view to licensing their technology. They are currently designing and building the capsule and a stretch of tube at their facility in Toulouse, France, which was where Airbus was made.
Why isn't Elon Musk developing this technology?
Musk never suggested that he personally would further the technology, points out Frances Anderton, host of KCRW's Design and Architecture. But he certainly indicates an interest in tubes with his Boring company. He originally called for open sourcing on Hyperloop. "A bunch of investors, engineers heeded the call. And somehow what started out as sounding like a gee-whiz fantasy has evolved into what seems to be a real industry with real money being thrown at it," says Anderton.
Jay Walder, CEO of Virgin Hyperloop One, says that the hyperloop could transform how we fundamentally live: "The point about transportation is not the movement itself. It's about what it unlocks for us. It’s about the ability to actually be able to rethink the way in which we live our lives."
How will the technology work?
Hyperloop operates on the principle of passive magnetic levitation or “maglev.” These are powerful magnets that pull people-filled pods through tubes.
Hyperloop One engineer Kristen Hammer explains that it’s basic science, really. "Current moving creates a magnetic field. And then if you put a magnet adjacent to that magnetic field, it reacts to that magnetic field. And basically in our case, that magnetic field pushes the pod away."
But how do the pods reach hundreds of miles per hour? "Careful tuning of that magnetic field, and basically playing around with the current in the motors to adjust the reactions that the pod has," says Hammer. "So optimizing the balance between lift and drag is something we spend a lot of time on."
Maglev technology already exists. Japan has a maglev train that travels at about 350 mph.
Both companies have mockups of a capsule. "You know those little capsules that you might get on at an airport, to whiz along on a monorail that delivers you to your gate? Imagine one of those, put inside a tube, and then going much much faster. The speed of a plane," says Anderton.
These capsules would lack some of the comforts of regular train travel. They don’t have windows. Engineers believe it'd feel very uncomfortable to whiz past a view at those speeds. (However, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has fake windows that project a scene of Monument Valley in Utah.)
Engineers want to make it so you don't feel the moving speed. You're supposed to be able to drink your coffee onboard without spilling it.
Is Hyperloop a viable alternative to high speed rail?
The office of inspirational quotes at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.
Virgin Hyperloop One and HTT believe this technology will be cheaper for both the manufacturer and customer, and it'll be cleaner and faster.
The two companies are already doing feasibility studies in China, United Arab Emirates, India, and the midwest. Virgin Hyperloop One is working on a route between Kansas City and St. Louis. HTT is looking at connections between Cleveland, Chicago, and one unnamed city.
"Their concept is that these Hyperloops could really only go between cities that are 200 miles apart. You couldn't do a Hyperloop between NY and LA. You also need a kind of straight shot, and you need the rights of way," says Anderton. "There are these political and land use aspects of the challenge that are really, really an important factor."
So far, there have been no tests on humans. Virgin Hyperloop One tested its system in Nevada, and HTT will do testing in the next month or so at its Toulouse base. But neither of those tests involve humans being shot through tubes at hundreds of miles an hour. HTT predicts human tests could happen within the next three years, and Virgin Hyperloop One says between now and 2030.
"Without question, they absolutely believe this is the future," says Anderton.
--Written and photographed by Amy Ta, produced by Kathryn Barnes