Almost contradictory to what we had to say in the previous blog, Hyperloop is being seen more like science fiction in Hollywood movies rather than an exceptional transport system to keep up with smart city pace in the future.
Although tech companies working on the technology are optimistic about its deployment, no one has concrete evidence regarding its physical, geographical, economic and ergonomic capabilities while staying under the safety belt.
It is true that when aeroplanes were not in the air and Maglev trains were just a theory, the world was highly skeptical of these transportation systems. Air travel, in particular, experienced a period of turbulence before people could fully embrace it. And so, owing to what history has taught the cities, it is likely that hyperloop may become a reality even before we have fully understood it.
Let’s weigh the different factors that stand as a barrier in the hyperloop journey. Also, find out whether or not we will be able to experience this massive change in the transportation world in smart cities.
The Decompression Challenge
We agree that constructing hundreds of kilometres of a tube (or tunnels) through which the pods move is an engineering wonder. But the way a scientist has proven dangerous consequences at a tiny scale seems to be pushing the phenomenon in a sci-fi fantasy.
According to sources, the pods will travel in a near-perfect vacuum which can handle the force of thousands of kilograms of a capsule as it travels at hundreds of kilometres per hour. Thousands of kilograms of the atmosphere will be constantly remaining above the near-perfect vacuum. This means that before Hyperloop takes its first journey, the transportation tubes will have to support the enormous weight of the atmosphere.
Hence, given the fact, even a minute defect in the structure of a tube would lead to a catastrophic implosion. A small puncture in the tube would allow the external air to tear into the tubes and crush it as it rushes in to fill the void to balance the pressure gradient.
Professor Mark French at Purdue University, US demonstrated this dangerous impact which is known as ‘decompression of a vacuum tube’ by turning a ping-pong ball into a deadly projectile.
He used an air-powered bazooka able of shooting ping pong balls at the speed of F-16 fighter jet by using the principle of decompression. This experiment of vacuum gun is similar to what can happen to a Hyperloop system in the event of spontaneous decompression. Same as the ping pong balls the train would instantly accelerate to supersonic speeds with devastating consequences.
The small scale testings of the hyperloop have proven to be safe and sound. However, in the real world, there are too many factors that cannot be estimated for a small scale design.
How Much Human Body Can Handle?
The hyperloop train which is expected to soon be deployed between San Francisco and Los Angeles currently has some technical barriers to defeat. These include the investment that will go into constructing the system in a stable manner over water; introducing an earthquake-proof tube that runs along the San Andreas fault; and the proposed five-mile spacing between the pods which means getting a four-second time to stop. The question also remains open as to how people can be evacuated from a pod in the case of an emergency.
Other than these, the major challenge is how human beings will be able to handle the supersonic accelerations or the “bumps in the road” coming along the journey. The forwards and backward accelerations can be handled properly. But the problem comes when the train is moving through different geographies in the journey – hilly terrains and mountains. Rails and roads deal with such geographical features by just taking a simple curve. But in the case of hyperloop that is supposed to travel over 800km per hour, taking curves is something impossible for human beings to handle.
Up-and-down or side-to-side accelerations are glaring sensations for human passengers who can handle about 0.2g’s of it. If the journey is experienced along a straight line with minimal acceleration, it can minimise the nausea factor and other ill effects on the body.
Going with the fundamentals, hyperloop will require a straight-line track involving drilling through the solid Earth on the path between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Engineers will have to take such limitations into account before designing and building the practical system.
Will It Be Feasible For All Ages?
According to some experts, hyperloop could become a transport system that is not appropriate for people of all ages. Elderly could wish not to opt for such an extreme ride. Or perhaps it could be an unsuitable mode of the journey for people with a weak heart. That being said, it depends on human tolerance to manage such speeds and accelerations.
Companies developing technology like Virgin Hyperloop One aim at making the trip the most comfortable and not end up as a ‘roller coaster ride’.
Apart from the geographical, ergonomic, physical viability, the futuristic transport system is also facing hurdles in the economic and political realm. There are debates that some governments may not approve the establishment of such a system while it requires billions in investments.
For example, considering the longest tunnel (60 km) constructed through a mountain in Switzerland which took a staggering US %12.3 billion, hyperloop will require an investment up to 130 billion dollars. The cost is significantly higher than the US $1.5 billion, proposed by one of the Hyperloop companies. The construction of the system cannot happen with government investment alone, and hence private finance will have to play a major role.
While the feasibility of hyperloop still remains an open question, UAE is set to open the first commercial hyperloop system by 2020, as per chairman of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Bibop Gresta.
The hyperloop train that will run between Abu Dhabi and Dubai has already passed the feasibility study. Hyperloop TT in partnership with Aldar properties successfully completed the testing phase.
When Gresta was questioned about the safety factor, he said hyperloop is essentially built on pylons by adopting best practices from civil engineering. This includes the ability to withstand thermal expansion and seismic design. In addition, the system is completely automated with advanced technologies that require monitoring only from humans.
He also mentioned that the system is backed by tiered emergency plans and repetitive escape procedures in case of any incident. The world’s largest reinsurance company Munich Re has also deemed the Hyperloop TT system as ‘feasible and insurable.’
Will Hyperloop Become Reality?
From an engineering perspective, it is unlikely that hyperloop may be a feasible mode of transport in smart cities. Although the idea is a marvellous dream come true, the practicalities of real-world implementation cannot be neglected.
The hyperloop phenomenon is still absurdly overpriced and violently dangerous, pointing out the fact that a single point of failure could lead to a catastrophe with irreversible damage to human life.
But as we always say, we will have to wait until the first hyperloop (as deemed) comes into play. Even if this sci-fi kind transportation enters smart cities, it is extremely likely that it will not be universally appealing.