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Hyperloop, the New Transport Revolution

Special issue : n°170 : Freedom of Movement in a Zero-Carbon World

Politique InternationaleFor a long time, men have sought means of travelling faster. Jules Verne imagined a “disk, propelled at high speed in a tube, like a ball in a blowpipe.” Was this the ancestor of Hyperloop?

Andres de Léon — It is true, the desire to move fast and in the most comfortable conditions possible is not new. Jules Verne imagined back in the 19th century a disk in a tube that would haul a train. Closer to us and more concrete, there were attempts in the 1990s, long before Hyperloop, to develop a means of transport at very high speed in a tube. But those attempts did not get past the stage of a first draft. This time, they are on the point of being realised. We have come a long way and today we have brought together many partners around our project.

P. I. You are working on a concept that will also revolutionise our landscapes. What will your trains be like?

A. de L. — The capsules will measure about 30 metres in length and weigh about 20 metric tons. They will travel in tubes positioned high on pylons (their dimension will depend on the topography of each place). This enclosed and covered space will head off climatic hazards as well as collisions and noise problems. The pylons will be built to resist earthquakes. The capsule will reach levitation in the tube thanks to passive magnetic energy. For passengers, the transport will not be just fast, but also very agreeable. The absence of friction will allow movement in silence and without jolts; this will be an incredibly comfortable experience compared with current aircraft and trains. The user is well and truly at the heart of our project.

P. I.Why did earlier attempts not succeed? What makes you believe that, this time, the conditions exist for the train imagined by Jules Verne finally to see the light of day?

A. de L. — For an innovation to work, the technological state of the art must find its public; there must be a service that corresponds to the demand. In the 1990s,  when the earlier concepts of movement inside tubes were launched, the means were lacking. Neither States nor industrial groups nor financial establishments were really convinced of the necessity to change our way of development. It was that, rather than technical constraints, that led to the attempts at the end of the 20th century to be aborted. The human energies did not come together, there was no consensus, demand did not exist in fact. Today,  the context has changed; the threats to the environment and global warming no longer leave us any choice. We have to think up new ways of moving as much for men as for goods. Emerging countries, in particular in Asia, have more and more populations that wish to travel and discover the world. Hyperloop has arrived at the right moment with a new offer as airports are saturated and the CO2 emissions of air transport are under scrutiny as is noise pollution.

P. I. What effects can we hope for in terms of town planning? A slowing down of rampant expansion, a better distribution of populations in the available space?

A. de L.  — Faced with the challenges of the planet and urbanisation, you have to dare, not think that things are impossible. For that you have to bring together the actors of the economic and State sphere so that they all are working to the same end. When our systems are installed on the landscape, medium-haul transport will be easily effected at a lower cost. It will be easy to link cities, people will be less inclined to take their cars for long-distance trips. They will save the time that they used to spend in traffic jams and will benefit from a more healthy environment and a better quality of air. That could lead to a better distribution of jobs and housing on the land, to a better use of space while improving transport flow.

P. I. Are the desire to travel and freedom of movement really compatible with the preservation of the environment and a zero-carbon world?

A. de L. — If the world continued along its current trajectory, it would quickly arrive at a dead end. But imagination and the birth of new concepts like ours will lead men to invent solutions. A globalised world also offers the chance to  bring together the ideas of everyone and to share innovations. That is what we are doing on our scale: Hyperloop is the fruit of real collaborative work and makes a complete break in terms of transport with what has been done up to now. Men and women want to be able to continue to move around without setting speed and the respect of nature against each other. This is important because travelling and exchanging goods are a way of irrigating the planet. The world must not close up on itself. Hyperloop will preserve the environment, be independent of climatic conditions and be safe, fast and profitable.

P. I.All this began with an idea of Elon Musk, I think. Is he still involved in the company?

A. de L. — The idea had been around for decades, but it was in effect the visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk who gave it a new impetus in 2013. He launched an industrial research programme whose objective was to conceive a raised tube in which capsules would travel. From that, many partners joined him. At the time, Elon Musk was the CEO and director of SpaceX technology. Today, he is not involved in the project at all but he remains determined to change the world, to halt global warming and to reduce energy consumption.

P. I. What is the difference between the train on which you are working and other very fast trains?

A. de L. — As I told you, Hyperloop is going to make travel capsules carrying travellers or goods in a double raised tube and at extremely high speeds. This tube is very innovative insofar as it uses magnetic energy. The tubes will be emptied of the greater part of their air and the magnetic field will be at the source of the thrust. This process is completely new and amounts to a real technological revolution. The magnetic field will be created by motors placed along the route of the capsules.  Elon Musk decided not to register a patent. The development of the concept is effected in a collaborative way through several companies with each working on a different project and that too is new. The company that I lead is at the heart  of this system.

P. I. How is your technology virtuous in energy terms? And how is it more economical in CO2 than another?

A. de L. — Our system will produce its own energy thanks to solar panels and also thanks to energy produced by its mode of movement. It is this which is doubtlessly the most innovative. There already exist houses or buildings with so-called positive energy which produce more energy than they consume. Hyperloop will be the first positive-energy means of transport; it will also produce more energy than it needs to travel. We estimated that our system will produce between 5 and 15 per cent more energy than it consumes depending on where it operates. We are therefore in the process of perfecting the most sustainable transport system in the world. How did we pull off this feat? By considerably reducing the friction of the capsules in the tube which permits a far lower consumption of energy than a classic train that runs on rails and comes up against wind resistance.  It is not necessary to electrify the rails because movement is carried out thanks to electromagnetic energy and not with electricity. Another important element: the aerodynamic profile of the capsule. Our prototype is installed in Toulouse – a region known for its aeronautical industry. Our capsule is inspired by this knowhow.

P. I. —  At what speed will one be able to travel? What routes are being studied? Are tests already under way?

A. de L. — The capsules will be able to reach a speed of 1,100 kilometres an hour in complete safety. Hyperloop will therefore go faster than planes. That will allow a considerable reduction in pollution by CO2 of which air transport is a big producer as are non-electric cars. So, it would take just 30 minutes to link Los Angeles to San Francisco. Today, it takes an hour and a half by plane to make the same trip from one airport to the other. Studies are also under way to estimate the feasibility of a link between Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. We have studied the economic viability of the project because it is not enough simply to be able to build a link; it must also be profitable. According to our forecasts, it would generate enough revenue to cover costs in material and capital. The financial income could even reach 6.5 per cent a year. We could absorb the new demand for goods transport and thereby contribute to a drop in freight carried by air and by trucks which have a very large carbon footprint. Based on a forecast of a growth in demand for transport of 4 to 5 per cent between the three cities, the establishment of Hyperloop would permit the reduction of emissions of CO2 by 143 million metric tons over the next 25 years.

P. I. Where are you based? How many people are there in your company? What projects do you follow personally?

A. de L. — I am based in Dubai because it is a very practical place for travelling all over the world and because we have a project under way in the United Arab Emirates where we are building a commercial prototype. It is important that I follow this operation closely. The headquarters of the HyperloopTT company is in Los Angeles and we have several offices across the world, notably in Toulouse. We are also based in Barcelona and Abu Dhabi. Our company employs about 100 people across the different sites, we function in a way like an incubator. More than 50 companies are working with us to ensure that Hyperloop sees the light of day. In all, there are 800 people currently working on this project. They have invested with us and it is the gathering of all these talents that allows us to take the risk to get this innovation up and running.

P. I. You are working on a new means of transport which resembles drawings from science fiction. What is your calendar for the dream to become reality?

A. de L.  — We are working simultaneously on several projects. In Toulouse, we are building a prototype that will travel 320 metres. This is a first stage with the aim of obtaining certifications and carrying out tests. This is a prototype designed for the technical installation of our transport offer; it will not be used commercially. We must finish the Toulouse demonstration model in the first quarter of 2021. We are also in the process of conceiving the first commercial prototype in Abu Dhabi. That is where we will build it. That will be our showplace. This will demonstrate that it is possible to carry at very high speed and in complete safety men and goods while preserving the planet because we rely on clean energy and consume very little. Before the coronavirus brought the world to a halt, we estimated that we could begin construction in Abu Dhabi in September 2020. The objective is to finalise this stretch of 5 kilometres by the end of 2022. The pandemic will probably delay us a bit but the project will continue.

P. I. When will we be able to get in a Hyperloop capsule?

A. de L.  — Once the construction is finished, we shall have to test the system and carry out all the checks. We hope to be operational by the end of 2022. This is obviously an approximate date; as for any new technology, surprises are possible. When we have the proof that Hyperloop works and is comfortable and safe, we shall be able to begin to sell the licence for our technology to infrastructure and transport companies who will take on the task of developing it throughout the world. You are asking when we shall be able to travel in the Hyperloop. I think that in 10 or 15 years, different operators will have created lines that are easy to use. Our technology will then seem to you as ordinary as the TGV high-speed trains of today. Projects exist in the United States, China has also taken options on our technology, countries and cities in Central Europe are also interested with a view, for example, for a link between Bratislava and Vienna. Feasibility studies are being carried out in several places on the planet.

P. I.What will be, in your view, the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic on the flows of people and goods? Will funds be available to go further?

A. de L. — The planet cannot stop, but it can call into question its ways of development and learn to think differently. In the transport sector, engineers are capable of imagining new ways of travelling. We have to create the means to put them into effect. After a period of slowdown, exchanges will resume (1).

This interview was conducted in November 2020.


Editor’s Note: Hyperloop technology is developed by several groups, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Virgin and the Franco-Canadian Transpod which foresees trains being operational by 2040. Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin, announced in October 2020 that he would invest $500 million to set up a world centre of certification in West Virginia and that he anticipated the first certifications in 2025. For the moment, tests have only allowed speeds of 463 kilometres an hour because test tracks are still too short, according to Sébastien Gendron, cofounder of Transpod.