​What is Hyperloop? Everything you need to know about the race for super-fast travel

Hyperloop technologies could revolutionise travel: here's everything you need to know about the technology and the companies involved.

What is Hyperloop? The game-changing transport tech explained Elon Musk has inspired numerous companies to try and commercialize technology that could be faster and more efficient than traditional rail.

Video: What is Hyperloop? The game-changing transport tech explained

What is Hyperloop?

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Hyperloop is a new form of ground transport currently in development by a number of companies, It could see passengers travelling at over 700 miles an hour in floating pod which races along inside giant low-pressure tubes, either above or below ground.

What makes Hyperloop different?

There are two big differences between Hyperloop and traditional rail. Firstly, the pods carrying passengers travel through tubes or tunnels from which most of the air has been removed to reduce friction. This should allow the pods to travel at up to 750 miles per hour.

Secondly, rather than using wheels like a train or car, the pods are designed to float on air skis, using the same basic idea as an air hockey table, or use magnetic levitation to reduce friction. 

What are the benefits of Hyperloop?

Supporters argue that Hyperloop could be cheaper and faster than train or car travel, and cheaper and less polluting than air travel. They claim that it's also quicker and cheaper to build than traditional high-speed rail. Hyperloop could therefore be used to take the pressure off gridlocked roads, making travel between cities easier, and potentially unlocking major economic benefits as a result.

When are the first Hyperloops going to be available?

A number of different companies are working to turn the idea into a functioning commercial system.

Hyperloop technology is still in development even though the basic concept has been around for many years. At the moment, the earliest any Hyperloop is likely to be up and running is 2020 but most services are expected to be later, as trials of the technology are still in their early stages.

Where will Hyperloop services run?

It's still not clear where Hyperloops will actually be established but a number of companies have sketched out routes in the US, Europe, and elsewhere. Potential routes include New York to Washington DC, Pune to Mumbai, Kansas City to St Louis, Bratislava to Brno, Vijaywada and Amaravati, and many more.

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The idea of using low-pressure or vacuum tubes as part of a transport system has a long heritage. The Crystal Palace pneumatic railway used air pressure to push a wagon uphill (and a vacuum to drag it back down) way back in Victorian south London in 1864. Similar systems using pneumatic tubes to send mail and packages between buildings have been in use since the late nineteenth century, and can still be seen in supermarkets and banks to move money around today.

One clear predecessor of the Hyperloop is the 'vactrain' concept developed by Robert Goddard early in the twentieth century; since then, many similar ideas have been proposed without much success.

However, it was entrepreneur Elon Musk who really reignited interest in the concept with his 'Hyperloop Alpha' paper in August 2013, which set out how a modern system would work -- and how much it would cost.

What is Hyperloop Alpha?

In his Hyperloop Alpha paper, Musk set out the case for a service running between Los Angeles and San Francisco, which would be cheaper and faster than a proposed high-speed rail link. He argued that his Hyperloop could be safer, faster, more affordable, weather-proof, self-powering -- and less disruptive to people living along the route.

Musk said that a Hyperloop service could be the answer to travel between cities less than about 1500 km or 900 miles apart; beyond that, supersonic air travel would be more efficient, he said.

"Short of figuring out real teleportation, which would of course be awesome (someone please do this), the only option for super fast travel is to build a tube over or under the ground that contains a special environment," Musk wrote. Nobody has got very far with the teleportation idea, alas, but a number of companies have seized at the potential of Hyperloop.

How does a Hyperloop tube work?

The basic idea of Hyperloop as envisioned by Musk is that the passenger pods or capsules travel through a tube, either above or below ground. To reduce friction, most -- but not all -- of the air is removed from the tubes by pumps.

Overcoming air resistance is one of the biggest uses of energy in high speed travel. Airliners climb to high altitudes to travel through less dense air; in order to create a similar effect at ground level, Hyperloop encloses the capsules in a reduced-pressure tube, effectively allowing the trains to travel at airplane speeds while still on the ground.

In Musk's model, the pressure of the air inside the Hyperloop tube is about one-sixth the pressure of the atmosphere on Mars (a notable comparison as Mars is another of Musk's interests). This means an operating pressure of 100 pascals, which reduces the drag force of the air by 1,000 times relative to sea level conditions, and would be equivalent to flying above 150,000 feet.

How do Hyperloop capsules work?

The Hyperloop capsules in Musk's model float above the tube's surface on a set of 28 air-bearing skis, similar to the way that the puck floats just above the table on an air hockey game. One major difference is that it is the pod, not the track, that generates the air cushion in order to keep the tube as simple and cheap as possible. Other versions of Hyperloop use magnetic levitation rather than air skis to keep the passenger pods above the tracks.

The pod would get its initial velocity from an external linear electric motor, which would accelerate it to 'high subsonic velocity' and then give it a boost every 70 miles or so; in between, the pod would coast along in near vacuum. Each capsule could carry 28 passengers (other versions aim to carry up to 40) plus some luggage; another version of the pods could carry cargo and vehicles. Pods would depart every two minutes (or every 30 seconds at peak usage).

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The pods will get their velocity from an external linear electric motor -- effectively a round induction motor (like the one in the Tesla Model S) rolled flat. Under Musk's model, the Hyperloop would be powered by solar panels placed on the top of the tube which would allow the system to generate more energy than it needs to run.

How is Hyperloop different from high-speed trains?

Supporters argue that Hyperloop is significantly better than high-speed rail. It is lower cost and more energy efficient because, among other things, the track doesn't need to provide power to the pods continuously and, because the pods can leave every 30 seconds, it's more like an on-demand service. It's also potentially two or three times faster than even high-speed rail (and ten times the speed of regular rail services).

How much would a Hyperloop cost to build?

For the LA to San Francisco Hyperloop that Musk envisaged, he came up with a price tag of under $6bn. Musk envisioned an LA to San Francisco journey time of half an hour with pod departures every 30 seconds, each carrying 28 passengers.

Spreading the capital cost over 20 years and adding in operational costs, Musk came up with the figure of $20 plus operating costs for a one-way ticket on the passenger Hyperloop.

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The costs of a Hyperloop according to Elon Musk's Hyperloop Alpha paper.

Image: SpaceX

Most of the cost of the system lies in building the tube network: the overall cost of the tube, pillars, vacuum pumps, and stations was calculated at just over $4bn for the passenger version of Hyperloop ($7bn for a slightly larger version that could also take freight). The cost of the capsules was put at around $1.35m a piece; with 40 needed for the service, the cost of these is around $54m (or $70m for a mix of passenger and cargo capsules). That's less than 9% of the cost of the proposed passenger-only high-speed rail system.

What will it feel like to travel in a Hyperloop?

Critics of Hyperloop have warned that travelling in the tube might be an uncomfortable experience, due to nausea-inducing acceleration, plus lateral G-force on bends in the route. However, Virgin Hyperloop One says that a journey via Hyperloop will feel about the same as riding in an elevator or a passenger plane.

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Virgin Hyperloop One's XP-1 passenger capsule.

Image: Virgin Hyperloop One

"Although Hyperloop will be fast, the systems we are building will accelerate with the same tolerable G-forces as that of taking off in a Boeing 747," it said. Acceleration and deceleration will be gradual, it added, with no G-forces and turbulence.

Travelling in a concrete pipe in a windowless pod means there isn't going to be much to look at; Musk's original vision said that "beautiful landscape will be displayed in the cabin" and each passenger will have access their own personal entertainment system.

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What a Hyperloop Transportation Technologies capsule might look like from inside.

Image: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

How much will Hyperloop tickets cost?

Musk's LA to San Francisco version offered tickets at just $20 but Virgin Hyperloop One is more vague on its plans: "Difficult to say as it will depend greatly on the route, but the goal is to make it affordable for everyone," it said, while Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) said it expects "a profitable system with low ticket price projections".

Will Hyperloop be a success?

That's the huge, multibillion dollar -- and, as yet, unanswered -- question around Hyperloop. The concept has been around for a long time, but until now the technology has been lacking. This time around, it's possible that the technology may have just caught up with the concept. 

There are well-funded companies racing to be the first to deliver a working service but, despite their optimistic timescales, these projects are still very much in the pilot and experimental stages. Going from short test routes to hundreds of kilometres of track is a big jump that none of these firms has made yet. 

If the technology is still in development, that's also very true of the business models to support it. The success of Hyperloop will vary depending on the destinations, local economics, and geography. Trying to build a new line overland across England, for example, can prove an expensive and complicated business which can take many years (as the ongoing HS2 controversy has shown).  In other countries where land is cheaper or where routes can travel through less populated areas, it may be easier to get services up and running faster.  

Capacity is another issue. It's not clear that Hyperloop can do a better job of moving a large number of people than other mass transit options. Critics argue that lots of pods will be required to achieve the same passenger numbers as more traditional rail, which uses much bigger carriages. And there are many engineering hurdles to overcome, like building the tubes strong enough to deal with the stresses of carrying the high-speed pods, and finding energy- and cost-efficient ways to keep them operating at low pressure. 

Moving from a successful test to a full commercial deployment is a big jump, and passenger trials are still to come. Assuming that consumers are happy being zoomed around in these tubes, finding the right price for the service will be vital, too.

Right now Hyperloop is at an experimental stage, even if the companies involved are very keen to talk about its potential.

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The companies building Hyperloop services argue that they are significantly cheaper to build than high-speed rail services. Musk's Hyperloop Alpha paper claimed his LA to San Francisco route could be built for one-tenth of the price of a high-speed rail alternative. Other companies have said their services could be one-third to half the price of rail services and much faster. Being cheaper to build should mean these services can become profitable quickly. 

However, there are plenty of engineering challenges to be tackled which could push the costs up, and how these services will be funded in the first place is not clear; many of the feasibility studies under way are looking at how to finance them, likely through a combination of public and private investment.

How is Hyperloop like Linux?

Rather than keeping the Hyperloop to himself, Musk threw the idea open to anyone who wanted to develop it, comparing it to the Linux operating system: an open-source design built by a community of developers in order to bring it from concept to reality.

Indeed, in his Hyperloop Alpha paper, Musk noted that a number of areas still remained to be resolved including the control mechanism for Hyperloop capsules; station designs with loading and unloading of both passenger and passenger-plus-vehicle versions of the Hyperloop capsules; comparisons of Hyperloop with more conventional magnetic levitation systems; and testing to demonstrate the physics of Hyperloop.

Who is building Hyperloop services?

Despite doing much to lay the groundwork for Hyperloop services, Musk initially said he was too busy to develop his own service. There are now a number of companies working to turn the idea into reality, including startups and others that have been working on the idea for some time already. Among them are Virgin Hyperloop One, HTT, TransPod, Arrivo, and others. Each is developing a slightly different set of technologies, but the fundamental underlying idea remains the same.

Is Elon Musk building a Hyperloop service?

Despite saying he was too busy, it looks like Musk remains intrigued by the idea of Hyperloop: last year he said that he had received 'verbal approval' for a New York to Philadelphia to Baltimore to Washington DC Hyperloop, which would cut the New York to Washington DC travel time to just 29 minutes. "Still a lot of work needed to receive formal approval, but am optimistic that will occur rapidly," he added.

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In February, the Washington Post reported that Musk's Boring Company had received a permit for some preparatory and excavation work in New York.

In October 2017, Maryland's Department of Transportation also gave conditional approval to the construction of a Boring Company tunnel from Baltimore to Washington, allowing it to dig under state roads.

In April 2019, the company provided more details on its plans for the Washington DC to Baltimore section -- it aims to build a high-speed Loop underground transportation system that transports passengers in autonomous electric vehicles, or AEVs, at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour.

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Image: The Boring Company

It adds that the Loop tunnels could potentially serve as Hyperloop corridors, which could potentially transport passengers at speeds of up to 700 miles per hour. However, it warned: "The potential future use of Hyperloop technology is currently unknown."

What is the Boring Company?

Musk set up the Boring Company with the aim of making it easier and faster to dig the tunnels under, and between, cities in order to make Hyperloop projects viable. Tunnels can cost as much as $1bn a mile to dig; The Boring Company wants to dig tunnels at one-tenth of the price. The company says it can do this by digging smaller tunnels, making faster and more efficient digging machines, and replacing diesel-powered machines with electric ones.

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A Boring Company tunnel.

Image: The Boring Company

As well as building more efficient digging machines, the Boring Company also offered a line of caps and more unusually flame throwers, both of which sold out rapidly after they were released.

In May, the Boring Company won a $48.6m contract to design and build the city of Las Vegas' planned loop of underground tunnels for moving people in autonomous electric vehicles. The tunnel is expected to be operational by the end of the year. 

What is Loop?

The Boring Company hopes that one use for these tunnels, as well as Hyperloops, will be Loop. This is a high-speed underground public transportation system which sees passengers carried on autonomous electric 'skates' travelling at 125 to 150 miles per hour. Electric skates will carry between eight and 16 passengers or a single passenger vehicle. Passengers (and vehicles) would enter the pods at street level and then elevators would drop them down to the level of the Loop to continue the journey underground, bypassing street traffic (with pedestrians and cyclists getting priority over cars).

The company is currently working on an initial test tunnel in Hawthorne (near the SpaceX and the Boring Company HQ) and has submitted plans for a 6.5-mile proof-of-process tunnel which would run within the City of Los Angeles and Culver City.

The company said that unlike a subway, there is no practical upper limit to the number of stations that can be built along the tunnel route, as stations can be as small as a single parking space because the service is accessed via lifts.

Each Loop 'station' is made up of a bank of elevators to transport the skates to and from ground level. "Since stations require such a small footprint, they can be easily integrated in busy city-centers, residential communities, or any location along the tunnel route that can accommodate a single parking space," the company said. It has published a map showing a potential set of routes for the service.

What is the Hyperloop Pod Competition?

Musk's SpaceX has its own Hyperloop test track at its headquarters in Hawthorne, California -- about one mile long and with a six-foot outer diameter.

In order to accelerate the development of functional prototypes and encourage student innovation, SpaceX announced the Hyperloop Pod Competition in 2015, which challenges university teams to design and build the best transport pod, judged by different criteria each time. In 2018, the focus was the maximum speed for a self-propelled pod on the test track, or as the competition puts it: "Fastest time without crashing wins!". In 2019 it was judged on maximum speed with successful deceleration.

What is Virgin Hyperloop One?

Virgin Hyperloop One is one of the leading contenders attempting to create a commercially viable Hyperloop system. It was founded in June 2014 and has over 300 staff. It has raised $295m with the aim of building an operational system by 2021. The company currently has projects underway in Missouri, Texas, Colorado, North Carolina, the Midwest, India, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

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Virgin Hyperloop One's DevLoop in North Las Vegas.

Image: Virgin Hyperloop One

In February, the company announced plans for the Indian state of Maharashtra to build a Hyperloop between Pune and Mumbai beginning with an operational demonstration track. The project will start with a six-month feasibility study looking at the route, environmental impact, the economic and commercial aspects of the route, the regulatory framework, and cost and funding model recommendations.

Assuming all goes well, an operational demonstration track will be built between two points on the route two to three years from the signing of the agreement and serve as a platform for testing. The company said the construction of the full Pune-Mumbai route -- a 25-minute journey -- would take place in five to seven years. It added the high-capacity passenger and cargo Hyperloop route could eventually see 150 million passenger trips annually.

"I believe Virgin Hyperloop One could have the same impact upon India in the 21st century as trains did in the 20th century," said Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin group.

The company is also working on a feasibility study into a Hyperloop route linking Kansas City, Columbia, and St Louis running along the I-70 in Missouri, and is looking at high-level cost estimate and funding model recommendations.

The company has a 500 meter-long DevLoop, which has a diameter of 3.3m and is located 30 minutes from Las Vegas in the Nevada desert. In December, the company said it had completed its third phase of testing, achieving test speeds of 387 kilometers per hour.

"The tests were conducted in a tube depressurized down to the equivalent air pressure experienced at 200,000 feet above sea level. A Virgin Hyperloop One pod quickly lifts above the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds for long distances due to ultra-low aerodynamic drag," the company said.

It has identified 11 potential routes in the US, from the short -- a Boston-Somerset-Providence route of just 64 miles -- to the epic -- the Cheyenne-Houston route which would run 1,152 miles across four states, potentially reducing to 1 hour and 45 minutes a journey that currently takes 17 hours by car or truck. The company has also identified nine routes across Europe, potentially connecting over 75 million people in 44 cities, and spanning 5,000 kilometers. 

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Image: Virgin Hyperloop One

In June 2019, the Indian project took a step forward with the government of Maharashtra giving Hyperloop the green light and preparing to start the public procurement process. This project will be a partnership between the DP World-Virgin Hyperloop One consortia and the state government, with DP World expected to invest $500m to complete the first phase of the project which will certify the new technology for passenger operations.

In July, Virgin Hyperloop One announced a development partnership with Saudi Arabia's Economic City Authority (ECA) to conduct a study to build a 35-kilometer test and certification Hyperloop track -- the longest so far -- as well as a research and development center and Hyperloop manufacturing facility north of Jeddah. In the future, traveling from Riyadh to Jeddah would take 76 minutes (instead of over 10 hours) using Hyperloop technologies, the company said. 

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Founded in 2013, Hyperloop Transport Technologies (HyperloopTT or HTT) is another company looking to turn Hyperloop into reality. It has a team of 800 engineers and headquartered in Los Angeles. It wants to build a transport system built on a passive magnetic levitation system and says its 30-meter capsules will be able to carry 28 to 40 passengers and travel at a maximum speed of 1,223 kilometers per hour, moving 164,000 passengers a day on one line at full efficiency. The company points to reinsurance company Munich Re deeming its system to be "feasible and insurable" as a reflection of its progress so far.

In September, HyperloopTT said it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Andhra Pradesh Economic Development Board to build a Hyperloop between the city centers of Vijaywada and Amaravati, potentially turning a trip of more than one hour into a six-minute ride. The project will use a public-private partnership, with funding primarily coming from private investors and starting with a six-month feasibility study. The company is also working on the development of a route from Bratislava, Slovakia to Brno, Czech Republic.

The company has a 320-meter test track system in Toulouse, France. "With tubes assembled and pumps installed, HyperloopTT is now beginning the process of integrating their full-scale passenger capsule for human trials in 2020," the company said in June this year.

Last year, the company said it also planned a second full-scale system, spanning one kilometer and elevated by pylons at a height of 5.8 meters. It's expected to be completed in 2019.

Another route identified as having Hyperloop potential would see the 313-mile journey from Chicago to Cleveland completed in 28 minutes -- at a speed of 730 miles an hour. A $1.2m feasibility study for developing a Hyperloop corridor route is due to be completed by the fall of this year.

HTT's first commercial Hyperloop project is a 10-kilometer length of track due to go live next year in the United Arab Emirates. Bibop Gresta, chairman of HyperloopTT said when the deal was announced in April 2018 that "with regulatory support" the first section will be operational in time for Expo 2020, which opens in October of that year. Construction work on the project is due to start in Abu Dhabi in the third quarter of this year.

In February, HyperloopTT told Australian politicians its technology could transport people from Sydney to Canberra in 22 minutes.

Who else is building Hyperloop services?

TransPod is another contender, and released a study that predicted that a TransPod Hyperloop system would cost 30 percent less than high-speed rail lines in Europe -- and be more efficient for passengers and freight, at more than three times the speed. It also said a Hyperloop will cost 50% less and travel four times faster than high-speed rail between Toronto and Windsor in Canada. In November 2016, TransPod announced the closing of a first $15m round of funding from Angelo Investments.

In January this year, TransPod said it was building a new three-kilometer-long test track in Limoges, France. Construction of the test track will begin in 2019, and the company plans to start high-speed testing in 2020. The results of the program will inform the construction of a working prototype of the TransPod's Hyperloop vacuum train, also to be built in Limoges.

Another company looking to build Hyperloop-style systems, Arrivo, shut down at the end of 2018.

What's next for Hyperloop?

Hyperloop is a technology that, for its supporters at least, could have a huge impact. It could reduce air travel between big cities, boost economies and trade, and reduce the pressure on housing in cities by allowing commuters to live further away. But none of this is anywhere near proven -- yet. There are major technical and business hurdles that Hyperloop technologies will need to surmount before they can carry passengers in comfort through a pneumatic tube, let alone change the world.

The next stage for Hyperloop is to move beyond initial testing and feasibility studies, start longer distance trials of the technology and, even more importantly, testing the service with passengers. Another challenge will be to find commercial models that work around the world. Only when all this is done will it become clear whether Hyperloop can really become a success.

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