Hyperloop’s Human Test Is More Fiction Than Fact

We won't be beaming anyone anywhere any time soon

Key Takeaways

  • Virgin Groups’ hyperloop safety test involved the first human passengers, but it leaves much to be desired for the future of the technology.
  • Dr. Claudel of the Texas Guadaloop team suggests hyperloop technology is far from being viable for mass human transit.
  • While hyperloop engineering is largely technically possible, funding and non-human variables exist as its largest roadblocks.
Virgin Hyperloop's test pod resting on platform with a sunset behind it
Virgin Hyperloop

Hyperloop technology has long been relegated to sci-fi films and video games, but recent developments have increasingly made it a possibility. However, some experts are saying it's more hype than reality.

On Nov. 8, the Virgin Hyperloop completed the first successful human passenger trip on its state-of-the-art levitating, airless tube reaching speeds of 100 mph. The test was marketed as a safety test to show hyperloop technology developed at Virgin to be reliable and, most importantly, secure for human usage. Dr. Christian Claudel, transportation engineering professor at the University of Texas, thinks differently.

"The Virgin example is a nice milestone, but it is not the case that it's answering questions about safety. It’s just a PR stunt," Claudel said in a Zoom interview with Lifewire. "It’s like when car manufacturers do one quick test. It’s just one quick test, it doesn’t show you whether or not it’s safe for everyone to drive."

Hyperloop Unviable

Still, Virgin Group’s human test was an impressive display of engineering ingenuity. It was able to simulate travel at an altitude five to six times the average commercial jet, or about 200,000 feet, while reaching maximum speeds of 107 mph. It may be far from viable for mass usage, but its possibilities remain as present as ever.

Hyperloop technology has been on the forefront of imaginative tech professionals’ minds since the start of the 2010s. Both as a quicker, more efficient travel option between large metropolitan areas, like New York City to DC most famously, but also for its green energy capabilities. Those concerned with the carbon footprint of transportation technologies like gas-guzzling cars and kerosene-powered planes have found hyperloop innovations to be a potential solution to ecological decay.

Cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, while planes account for 2% of greenhouse gases worldwide. The hyperloop was poised to be a green energy substitute for personal vehicles and airplane rides, but it remains elusive despite the noted lack of technological roadblocks.

Apart from the technology capabilities, the funding is nonexistent to foot the bill for the expensive high-speed technology and infrastructure reform necessary. For now, it exists as more of a gimmick—paying homage to its roots as a fictional promise of the near future.

"The technology is there. We have the data. The problem is that economically, right now, even with the interest, it is very difficult to generate the required work to make this happen faster, but there is little interest economically," said Claudel. "Plus, we don’t have [a] very good reason for the system. Even from a transportation system standpoint, just to make a few hundred miles of hyperloop, it does not make sense and is hard to justify the funding."

The Future of Hyperloop

As part of the University of Texas team working on the Texas Guadaloop—a hyperloop connecting Austin, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio—Claudel thinks researchers are far away from a truly viable hyperloop for mass transit.

While the Virgin Hyperloop safety test was focused on showing human passenger transportation, hyperloop is more likely to focus on the movement of cargo. At least, in its near future. Existing iterations of the hyperloop are incredibly dangerous and unfinished; thousands of miles of tubes and crushing atmospheric pressures remain as unaccounted for barriers to large-scale development.

The Hyperloop needs to maintain a near perfect vacuum and outside pressure can disrupt the equilibrium necessary on the inside. One mistake can cause a spontaneous decompression with immeasurable force best described as the "equivalent to an elephant traveling nearly 2000 km an hour for every square meter," according to Interesting Engineering.

Between the intense pressure and the commitment by inspired engineers to reach, or even exceed, the speed of sound, the chance for error and deadly consequences remain too large. More trials are needed to establish safety for both time-sensitive cargo shipments and, eventually, people. Performance, skill, and funding are the three primary roadblocks for future developmental plans.

As it stands, the much-discussed hyperloop remains an unsure vision not quite ready for primetime. Even the star power of Elon Musk cannot seem to light this fire. Developments will continue unperturbed as engineers like Dr. Claudel push for funding, but don’t expect to catch a ride on a high-speed hyperloop tube any time soon.

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