On Tuesday, startup Hyperloop One announced that it had signed a deal with Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) to conduct a number of feasibility studies on potential Hyperloop routes in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Earlier this year, the company agreed to develop a Hyperloop cargo offloader at the port and later received $50 million from Dubai’s port operator, DP World. These new feasibility studies commissioned by RTD seem aimed at transporting humans as well as cargo, however.
The Hyperloop is a concept advanced in recent years by Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Musk’s plans suggested using low-friction tubes to send pods through at 700mph, but the CEO declined to put resources toward building a Hyperloop and offered his ideas to any startup that wanted to attempt to bring it to market. Hyperloop One was one of those startups; another group called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies relies on volunteer work from NASA, SpaceX, Boeing, and Tesla engineers. In addition, 29 research and student groups were recently selected out of a larger group of 129 to show off their designs at a Hyperloop contest sponsored by SpaceX next year.
But Hyperloop One seems to be making inroads faster than others, despite an ongoing and very public feud with some former executives and engineers. It demonstrated its propulsion system in the Nevada desert earlier this year, and yesterday it released a video (seen above) of a “comprehensive concept design” of its version of the high-speed magnetic rail tube network.
The concept is just an artist’s rendering, but it gives some idea of how the startup is approaching the mass transit network. It shows autonomously driving square pods queuing up in a bigger pod, which is in turn shot through the Hyperloop tube, in this case stretching from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. The company projected that the trip between the two UAE cities would take 12 minutes. “Our infrastructure can be tuned to serve the same function for self-driving Ubers, Teslas, BMWs, you name it, as well as our pods,” Hyperloop One wrote in a press release. That would seem to address the “last mile problem” that all mass transit systems face—that is, the problem of getting residents from their homes or offices to the train station.
“Pods can seat anywhere from six to 100 people as comfortably as a living room,” a Hyperloop One press release read. “Companies can have their own custom meeting pods. Families can have their own pod. There could even be a critical-care pod to whisk patients to the hospital.”
The company said it would have its “Kitty Hawk” demonstration next year, and its video projected a fully functional Hyperloop by 2020.
The announcement is the most concrete yet from any group working on a Hyperloop design. But building a brand-new transportation system is difficult, and if California’s High Speed Rail project has taught us anything, cost, time, and feasibility projections can belie how difficult executing such a project actually is. For perspective, Ars spoke to Gil Tal, a researcher and faculty member with the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, who said that he had little doubt that a Hyperloop was technically feasible. Still, “I don’t know if Hyperloop actually makes sense economically,” Tal said. “I think probably technological barriers are not that hard to overcome.”
Tal compared Hyperloop One’s plan with the Concorde. “Yes we can fly from London to New York in four hours, but it makes no economical sense,” he said. “Even though some people would be happy to pay five times or 10 times for a flight, it’s just not enough.”
With the full support of a national or regional government, the project might have more of a shot. Concorde struggled with legislation that prohibited sonic booms over land in the US, which researchers have argued merits a second look today as technology has advanced.
Tal added that Hyperloop One’s inclusion of a “last mile” solution was a good idea, but he added that the Hyperloop will compete with ground and air transportation and would need to have “high density, with high demand on both ends,” to really prove its worth.
Listing image by Hyperloop One