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Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Tech and the Future of Transportation

Why hyperloop is poised to transform commutes, commerce, and communities

Elon Musk may have popularized the concept, but multiple teams are racing to deploy hyperloop routes at key spots across the globe.

Make no mistake, hyperloop is potentially the biggest innovation in transportation in a century--since the commercialization of air travel. It's going to make hundred-mile journeys faster, easier, and cheaper. And by making it possible for workers to commute hundreds of miles each day, it will inevitably lead to massive changes in where people live, hiring, and the ways companies organize teams.

SEE: Hyperloop: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

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While Elon Musk is sometimes credited as the creator of hyperloop, it's more accurate to think of him as the popularizer of the technology. The concept of high-speed pods in pressurized tubes goes back decades. Musk just brought it into the public consciousness in 2013 with his now-famous paper "Hyperloop Alpha" that showed how communities could take a huge leap forward in transportation.

Musk published this thought experiment in response to California's uninspiring light rail plan. He wrote, "How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and [NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory]--doing incredible things like indexing all the world's knowledge and putting rovers on Mars--would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?"

And then Musk suggested what they should do instead--pressurized tubes--which lit the imagination of innovators, investors, and weary commuters across the planet.

What is hyperloop?

Essentially, hyperloop is a vacuum tube where a pod slides along a single track that is magnetized so that there is very little resistance. This pristine environment allows the pod to move at extremely high speeds using minimal electricity, which makes it fairly low-cost to build and operate--and so potentially much less expensive for passengers to buy tickets.

While today's bullet trains travel at 200 miles per hour and commercial airplanes cruise at 500-600 mph, the hyperloop has projected speeds of 700-800 mph. And since a hyperloop can avoid the takeoff and landing that an airplane needs to get to cruising altitude, it can shave additional time off the journey and create a more efficient trip.

The initial hyperloop designs are for elevated tracks that look similar to the monorail at Disney World--except with an enclosed tube on top of the pylons. This works great for flat, straight routes, and these are likely to be the targets for the first hyperloop deployments.

SEE: Top 5 things to know about Hyperloop (TechRepublic)

Eventually, hyperloop routes could feature tunnels through hills and mountains and possibly even undersea routes. But, the digging and the infrastructure for those routes will likely be much more expensive and time consuming than building out the hyperloop routes themselves, and so those are further off into the future.

The biggest challenge with hyperloop could be whether the G-force produced by such super high-speed travel will induce motion-sickness and nausea in passengers--especially when the track has to curve or turn.

Which companies are working on hyperloop?

Since Musk's hyperloop manifesto five years ago, a number of companies have sprung up in earnest to commercialize the idea:

  • Virgin Hyperloop One: Perhaps the largest team working on the concept is the group at Hyperloop One, which has been toiling away on bringing hyperloop into reality since 2014 and is now backed by the Virgin brand, thanks to an investment from Richard Branson. ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic interviewed Virgin Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd at CES 2018 about the company's roadmap to bring hyperloop into reality in the next several years.
  • Hyperloop Transportation Technologies: The other company that is the furthest along in bringing hyperloop to market is HTT, which has been working on it since the end of 2013. It takes more of an open source approach, with a number of engineers contributing time to the effort while still holding down other day jobs. It's been working on potential routes in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, and it's even toyed with the idea of smaller, slower hyperloops in big cities that ease commutes and could potentially deliver passengers faster to the big, fast loops.
  • SpaceX: After initially put the idea into the public because he said his companies didn't have time to work on it, Elon Musk has since spun up a Hyperloop division within SpaceX. While it's playing from behind, SpaceX has successfully launched a series of Hyperloop competitions that are aimed to overcoming some of the concept's challenges. For 2018, they are running a Hyperloop Pod Competition, for example.
  • ET3 Global Alliance: Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies (ET3) is taking a different--and longer-term--approach to vacuum tube travel. It wants to create a network of smaller capsules that can travel at about 375 mph. Think of it as a hyperloop-powered superhighway full of automated capsules. It claims that this can be built for a tenth of the cost of high-speed rail and a quarter of the cost of a freeway. That's why it sees the potential of traveling from the US to India in 3 hours for under $50, as its CEO Daryl Oster told TechRepublic in 2017.

Where will we see the first hyperloops?

Both Hyperloop One and HTT are expected to announce their first hyperloop routes in 2018. Some of the first places where potential routes have been explored--or at least considerable interest has been reported--include:

  • Los Angeles to San Francisco (along the Interstate 5 corridor)
  • India (various routes under consideration by both HTT and Hyperloop One)
  • Germany (an 8-city route encircling the country)
  • Dubai to Abu Dhabi
  • Stockholm, Sweden to Helsinki, Finland
  • Toronto to Montreal, Canada
  • London to Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Cheyenne, WY to Denver, CO to Pueblo, NM
  • Vienna to Budapest
  • Seoul to Busan, South Korea
  • Mexico City to Guadalajara, Mexico

Stay tuned for official announcements to start happening in 2018 and 2019.

SEE: How Hyperloop One is building a network that will be more than a series of tubes (TechRepublic)

What will be the impact of hyperloop?

When people can quickly and inexpensively commute between major metropolitan areas and from outlying suburbs into big cities, it is going to naturally fuel a number of economic disruptions:

  1. Where employees can live--Longer distance commutes will give employees a lot more options when it comes to housing, as well was which jobs they can consider.
  2. Where companies can hire--Enabling longer commutes also widens the pool of job candidates for employers and could make it easier to fill niche job roles. It could also make it easier for companies to open more small, remote offices where employees can work most of the time--but can jump on the hyperloop and come to HQ for in-person meetings when needed.
  3. Real estate prices--By drawing a larger circle around metropolitan areas due to longer commutes, the runaway inflation of real estate prices in cities such as San Francisco, London, New York, and Boston could be eased.
  4. Tourism--Even as hyperloop might lead to the real estate boom abating in some big cities, their daily foot traffic is likely to increase as it becomes easier and cheaper for more people to whisk in for short trips to shop, visit, and attend events.
hyperloop-one-pod-ces-2018.jpg

Virgin Hyperloop One showed off its record-breaking pod at CES 2018.

Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

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