Part One: The autonomous and high speed future of short haul transport
The need to travel as fast as we Tweet has never been more necessary as the world shrinks under the weight of instant communication, the 24-hour news cycle and the immediate dissemination of information through the myriad of different mediums at our finger tips. For this reason CarTrawler has investigated the future of rapid short haul transport and what that means for the airline industry. CarTrawler’s future focused gaze on multimodal transport concepts has allowed us to remain the industry leader in travel tech solutions. The Vanguard of Kinesis series looks at some outlandish concepts that have made it to the mainstream and what those developments mean for the industry going forward.
The idea of putting commuters in a levitating pod and firing them at high speed through a long pipe may seem like a preposterous notion, however placing travellers in a metal tube with wings and shooting them into the air was just as outlandish in the nineteenth century. When industry leaders like Elon Musk and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi are having a public tit-for-tat over the benefits of flying cars versus 700mph levitating pods, it’s clear that fiction has turned to fact and the race is on to roll out the next step in transport solutions. CarTrawler has spoken to teams at the bleeding edge of short haul transport to compile this future focused feature, in order to investigate just what to expect from these potentially disruptive 21st century transport solutions.
The Hyperloop system is one piece of technology with the potential to be greatly disruptive if developed in key locations linking cities that have a high volume of air traffic. It was dreamed up by the team at Elon Musk’s SpaceX and was revealed to the world in a white paper penned by the business magnate, titled Hyperloop Alpha, in which he described the proposed system as “a new mode of transport” which seeks to be “both fast and inexpensive for people and goods”.
Musk has envisioned a high speed pod that rests on a bed of air which is pushed under the vessel by an electric compressor fan in the shuttle’s nose. Traveling on an air cushion, like a puck on an air hockey table, will allow the pod to travel at high speed through a tube without creating friction. It’s imperative to avoid friction when hurtling through a pipe at the proposed speeds of over 700mph (1,126kph) as the pod would become superheated “Air bearings, which use the same basic principle as an air hockey table, have been demonstrated to work at speeds of Mach 1.1 with very low friction” claims Musk in his white paper.
In order to get around the prospect of battery power aboard the pod, external linear electric motors placed along the pipe, powered by overhead solar panels have been proposed and are only required for less than ~1% of the tube length, making powering the Hyperloop particularly cost effective, despite the rather sizable outlay costs, which are estimated in the white paper to be around $6b. The tube which houses the pod would be the most expensive part of the system and would require the constructions of a series of pylons and tunnels.
This new technology poses questions for the airline industry as just one functional Hyperloop could have detrimental disruptive effects on airline revenues. Taking San Francisco to Los Angeles International as an example, which caters for 2,238,043 annual passengers paying an average based fare of $111.66. This would pose a potential loss of $249,899,881.38 to the industry in airfares alone without taking into account the possibility of substantial losses in ancillary revenue. If a long distance Hyperloop between New York’s JFK airport and LAX was unveiled before affordable supersonic airborne alternatives were rolled out, the potential loss of 2,873,316 passengers paying an average of $337.66 per person would bring the loss to just short of a billion dollars at $970,203,880.56.
However with companies like Boom Supersonic planning to fly from London to New York in three hours and 15 minutes by 2025, this loss may be avoidable. According to reports there have been 76 orders placed for the Virgin backed supersonic Boom jets, which are expected to be airborne within the next six years. The aircraft is expected to reach speeds of Mach 2.2, taking it from London to New York in 3 hours and 20 minutes. Boom CEO Blake Scholl has boasted that they will create “the first supersonic jet people can afford to fly,” with an estimated ticket price of $5,000 from New York to London, meanwhile Musk estimated the cost of a seat in a Hyperloop pod to be “$20 for a one-way trip” based on amortizing the set up cost of $6 billion over 20 years.
This post Concord supersonic rebirth has made it all the way to the White House, with the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal for NASA including full funding for the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator (LBFD), an experimental supersonic aircraft that could potentially transport commercial-airline passengers faster than the speed of sound. These low boom aircraft will use a dart like swept wing to reach supersonic speeds without producing a loud sonic boom.
In the SpaceX white paper, Elon Musk himself admits that the Hyperloop is more fitted to “high traffic city pairs that are less than about 1500 km or 900 miles apart” as he claims that after that point “supersonic air travel ends up being faster and cheaper. With a high enough altitude and the right geometry, the sonic boom noise on the ground would be no louder than current airliners, so that isn’t a showstopper. Also, a quiet supersonic plane immediately solves every long distance city pair without the need for a vast new worldwide infrastructure.”
The most prominent team working on Musk’s idea, Hyperloop One, were recently backed and rebranded by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group for an undisclosed sum. This investment was part of an $85m fundraising push for the now Virgin Hyperloop One team to further its efforts. So far they have built a tube 500 metres long and three metres wide called the DevLoop on an isolated patch of desert 35 miles north of Las Vegas, Nevada. They have done away with Musk’s notion of levitating the pod with air and replaced it with a non-superconducting magnetic levitation system, similar to the one that holds the record for the fastest train ever tested, at more than 600 km per hour in Japan.
Virgin Hyperloop One
The Virgin backed team, that are diligently testing the system on their DevLoop, believe they can launch a commercial system in the US by 2021. So far they have managed to shoot their prototype pod 386kph (240mph). This shuttle will be for both cargo and passengers, however the team are focusing on cargo as a logical stating point, “We plan to have a single type of pod that can do both cargo and people,” says Anita Sengupta.
Hyperloop One claim that they are planning to start by moving containers back and forth from the Port of LA, which they say will help to remove trucks from congested urban areas.
In February 2018 Richard Branson announced that the Indian State of Maharashtra has announced their intent to build a Virgin Hyperloop. According to reports the proposed Hyperloop route would link central Pune, Navi Mumbai International Airport, and Mumbai in 25-minutes, connecting 26 million people. Supporting 150 million passenger trips per year, it would help create a thriving, competitive megaregion. Branson announced that their studies have found, the Pune-Mumbai route has the potential to drum up USD $55 billion in socioeconomic benefits, time savings, accident reduction and operational cost savings, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions up to 86,000 tonnes over 30 years of operation.
Virgin also recently unveiled their new pod prototype for the Dubai to Abu Dhabi Hyperloop, which will allegedly hit speeds of up to 1,200kmh (760mph), making the 90 minute car journey in 12 minutes. The big reveal for the luxurious low friction passenger pod was part of UAE’s Innovation Month, which has become a cutting edge transport showcase since Dubai’s Road Transport Authority (RTA) announced that 25 per cent of all journeys are to be driverless by 2030.
Virgin Hyperloop One
Musk’s concept and white paper focuses on a journey between the Californian cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, however a team based in the Netherlands is spearheading Europe’s first Hyperloop experiment. Hardt Hyperloop emerged from Delft Hyperloop, the team from the Delft University of Technology in South Holland Province, Netherlands, that won Elon Musk’s 2017 Hyperloop competition. They are supported by the Royal BAM Construction Group, Dutch Railways and Delft University of Technology and UNIIQ.
In December 2017 the Dutch House of Representatives voted unanimously to investigate the financing of a high-speed test facility for the Hyperloop in Flevoland, in cooperation with Hardt Hyperloop and other private parties. 
“It’s great to see that the opportunities offered by the Hyperloop are now also acknowledged by politicians,” said Tim Houter, CEO and co-founder of Hardt Hyperloop. “Things are going in the right direction.”
The Dutch team have now developed “the first low-speed test facility in the Netherlands”, according to Hardt Hyperloop’s Jelte Altena, while also securing an initial financing round of about €1.25 million. “In collaborations with our partners, we have been able to expand our field of activity and develop and test new technology and theory.”
Hardt, collaborating with the Dutch Government, are planning to develop a high speed test facility in the Netherlands which, according to Altena, would “create 400 jobs and set the standard for Hyperloop technology.” Hardt’s timeline is a little more realistic than some of its competitors, as the Dutch team plan to have their first commercial route, which they say will be “super safe, durable, timesaving, and energy efficient”, in ten-year’s time. However, for now they are “focusing on developing an international standard so that our idea can be implemented effectively and safely throughout the world.”
Altena told CarTrawler that Hardt aren’t focused on just traveling as fast as possible, “the main question is how we can make sure that the end-user travels from point A to B effectively. This effectiveness can be realized by making sure the Hyperloop solves several distance aspects, while also working together in a seamless way with existing and future transport technologies.”
The Hyperloop system, if adopted for passenger travel, will undoubtedly have consequences for airlines operating routes in areas served by the system. Creating a cheaper and faster alternative to air travel could entirely devastate short haul operators and damage the periphery industries that are dependent on them. However, it will be decades until this system is adopted, provided it is proven to be safe, secure and cost effective, giving the airline industry time to adapt as long as they remain abreast of the developments.
In the next instalment of our series examining the future of short haul transport we explore the rapidly evolving world of autonomous drones, their practical uses, their limitations and how the airline industry can capitalise on their development.
For Part II in the series click here.
By Morgan Flanagan Creagh
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