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Op-Ed: Hyperloop — Superfast tube transport, undersold potential values

By Paul Wallis     Jul 8, 2015 in Technology
Sydney - Hyperloop is Elon Musk’s new baby. It’s a good idea which could deliver some salvation from murderous freight costs and overheads for the world. It could also do with some more justice from more thought about what it can deliver.
Hyperloop is “generation next” evolved fast transport system. Unlike maglev, Hyperloop is a zero environmental impact system, with no rails, solar energy, more performance, and better aerodynamics in a low pressure environment created by air compressors. Its theoretical ceiling is 760 mph. It’s being touted as the replacement for rail, both passenger and freight. The generic term for this mode of transport is “Vactrain”.
Setting up the future, or bitching about it?
The idea has taken a while to get traction since Musk put it in to the public eye in 2012. The most pressing problems with Hyperloop at this point are dollar based. The initial cost of setting it up is an issue. Hyperloop is based on a system of tubes on pylons. It’s a major infrastructural undertaking to create Hyperloops over long distances. One of the objections to a proposed Hyperloop project on Interstate 5 was that the cost of $7.5 billion seemed too low.
Another objection was the reliance on “unproven technologies,” which is somewhat off the mark in terms of the basic tech, but “unproven system values” isn’t. Hyperloop does need to show its class, preferably ASAP, to get the sort of industry support and credibility it needs.
Putting this thing on the market and getting it to generate strong, reliable revenue will be no minor feat. Long-suffering California commuters may not take a lot of persuading to use it, but businesses and freight companies will need to see dollar values.
The issue here is real cost benefits, both for setup and operations. I’d say the potential values of Hyperloop have been very seriously undersold. The large scale benefits are being expressed as mundane things, not the very high economic values the Hyperloop system can deliver.
The benefits of a viable fast transport system like this are endless, if it works. Road and rail freight are basically forms of economic masochism in terms of cost. A genuinely efficient fast transport system could cut costs and times drastically.
One of the major issues for all businesses is the cost of freight, which translates to higher prices for every single product on the shelves. Anything that reduces that cost, let alone reduces it significantly, is worth a look. Heavy freight companies also often experience lethal-scale overheads. Just keeping things moving is incredibly expensive, maintenance costs a fortune, and freight carries major business risks.
There’s another way of looking at this problem, and this is where Hyperloop can deliver some real grunt. When rail was first introduced, it revolutionized logistics overnight. This was a massive macroeconomic driver for the huge industrial boom of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The overcrowded, overloaded logistics systems of the present day are now at saturation point. Hyperloop has some major recommendations in this scenario. Imagine moving millions of tons of coal or ore at 760mph. Imagine freight and handling costs reduced to 10 percent (arbitrary figure) of current costs, with time savings built in.
To give an example from my own country, Australia — our huge volumes of ore and agricultural products need all the freight and logistics capacity they can get. Every mile costs money. Time and handling are expensive. Just getting these things on ships is costly. The economic benefits at the production end are no-brainers, but there’s a lot more to be considered in this very basic logistics and supply scenario.
At the consumer end, cheap food distribution alone is a major plus. America’s “food deserts” are no joke, and they’re a good example; large under-serviced areas where distribution is just plain expensive. Very large areas of the country are severely underserviced.
Go anywhere Hyperloop?
Take the distribution model one step further, and the ability to distribute goods and services can be cranked up into a much more cost-efficient model instantly with Hyperloop. There’s another option — create a “mobile” Hyperloop, built on portable frames, not fixed pylons. (Yes, there are load issues, but they’re based on known load weight integers, and frames are cheaper to produce than pylons, too.) You need a few million tons of something somewhere? You could lay frames like an oil pipeline, very quickly, anywhere you have open space.
Another practical option — for disaster relief, you could have a mini-Hyperloop, easy to transport, cheap to make, built on portable frames, getting the time factor under control and delivering a huge amount of useful materials when and where needed. You could deliver the really tough, hard to handle, high demand stuff, like water, very quickly indeed. Then just take it wherever it’s needed.
Internal distribution Hyperloop — a miniature local distribution network, based on the same principles as mobile Hyperloop, frames in a local “circuit” configuration. Take the misery out of traffic negotiation and reduce the handling to minimum distances between distribution receivers. You’d be travelling 5 miles instead of 20 miles through traffic. Cost savings are easily calculable.
Hyperloop and supply chains
A supply chain is the full spectrum of supply from producer to consumer. The more efficient the supply chain, the better for all involved in it. Hyperloop can deliver case-specific logistics and general supply logistics.
Above, I’ve outlined a scenario which includes both fixed and mobile Hyperloops. The key to success will be simplicity in both construction and implementation. I’d suggest that some pure research in to cost bases would be highly productive, and almost certainly reduce costs drastically. This is a whole new system; why not throw out the conventions of construction and find a cheap, dependable mass production system to go with Hyperloop?
Technologies are likely to be temporary problems. Hyperloop in embryo is a basically simple, but very efficient, idea. Hypersonic technologies are already in the ballpark for high performance operations in the tubes. Super capacitors can and will inevitably replace heavy, inefficient-by-definition batteries. You can build whole autonomous mobile power plants with these things. They’re much better for power management, anyway, and far more responsive, allowing performance economics and “agility”, smart power management on a large scale system.
Now — focus on the economic potentials. The values which Hyperloop could deliver are enormous, and almost instant. In a global consumer economy where time and money are continuously under stress, a system which removes the stress is very good economic news indeed.
With any luck, Hyperloop will deliver the future of the science fiction greats. Apparently, Musk is an Asimov fan, and the Foundation series was a major inspiration. The Second Foundation of Hyperloop, the core idea and visualization of the plan, is the key to success for Hyperloop as I see it. The thinking will dictate the development. It’ll be worth seeing.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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