Hyperloop in Emerging Markets ?>

Hyperloop in Emerging Markets

Flying cars, personal helicopters, and teleportation.  There’s nothing like a new form of transportation to fire the imagination.  Garage-based inventors show us something new and promise more every year.  If it weren’t for these efforts, Popular Mechanics would have nothing to write about.

Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s dream of a transonic transport system in an evacuated tube started out the same way.  What apparently started as a stack of scribblings on bar napkins was edited by SpaceX engineers to a cogent 57-page white paper describing a revolutionary form of transport.  It arrived on the sense just as Californian were frustrated with meager progress on the state’s effort to build a high-speed rail system between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Only twice as fast as trains from a hundred years ago, still slower than commercial air service, and purchased from abroad, the California High Speed Rail system was an easy target.

Hyperloop promises instead 760 mph (1220 km/h) service for passengers and freight at a tenth of the cost of the proposed rail system.  The idea would have died after a few magazine articles were it not for the profile of its author, Elon Musk.  His vision came to life in the form of SpaceX and Tesla Motors.  After a critical read of his paper, real people committed real money and resources to making Hyperloop a reality.  Three companies have form to develop the technology.  A hundred academic teams developed capsule concepts.  Twenty of them were selected to build and compete on a mile long test track SpaceX is building.  Yes Hyperloop is a thing.

Hyperloop has a long way to go before it puts California High Speed Rail out of business.  The economic model needs to be proven.  It needs to be shown that it can be done safely.

Proving a new system takes the guts to invest in the first one.  That means you need a place where the costs aren’t too high.  Government likely needs to be friendly.  There has to be a substantial market to make it worthwhile.  It means accepting that version one point zero won’t be without risk of injury or death.  It needs a country not run by plaintiff’s attorneys.

The United States used to be such a country.  More rail lines were built in the U.S. in the 19th century than the rest of the world combined.  The United States pioneered air transport.  In the 21st century, we are dead last among industrialized countries in the development of high-speed rail.

China, on the other hand, made a strategic decision.  It would not use its new-found wealth to develop an air transportation system.  Rather, by using the power of central planning, it committed to a high speed rail network.  In 2016, it will lay 10,000 km of new high speed track.  It buried its first few mistakes, but progress today seems unaffected.

The developers of Hyperloop have already made this observation.  The top brass of both Hyperloop Technologies and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies are globetrotting, talking it up in every corner of the world.  And what a reception they’ve gotten.  Technology blogs highlight a new city pair every day.

It’s clear why a Hyperlooper would talk up a project in Slovakia or Chile.  It gets a response unimaginable in the U.S.  But are these junkets useful?  Are we likely to discover a city pair that is the right distance with the requisite number of travelers without some show-stopping geographic feature?

Chile, an exceptionally long country, needs first a connection between its capital Santiago and its major seaport, Valparaiso.  That route is 115 km through the earthquake-prone coastal range.  These are the same geographic challenges that have caused the California High Speed Rail Authority to delay digging in the Tehachapi Mountains near Los Angeles.

Slovakia, the home to the first electric railway, is considering a route between Bratislava and Vienna.  It’s 70 km, hardly long enough to see time-savings.

Stockholm to Helsinki is good candidate, but it requires an undersea tunnel, far longer than the Channel or Seikan Tunnels.

If the price of oil goes back up, Abu Dhabi to Dubai (157 km) might be a good route.  Kaohsiung to Taipei (500 km) offers both population density and the right route length.  High speed rail was just installed there.  No route, however, is as prime as California.

Is there something that this author is missing?  Stimulation of interest in places where Hyperloop doesn’t yet make sense?  Perhaps it is to drum up investment.  Or to recruit engineering talent.  Brazzaville to Kinshasa is a romantic vision, but not a practical one.  It is the engineering equivalent of throwing a starving dog a rubber bone.

Hyperloop has engaged the imaginations of young people in a way not seen since the space race.  If it does nothing else, it is sure to encourage more boys and girls to take up science and engineering.  If Hyperloop does nothing more than engage us to think bigger, then Musk’s 57-page paper and the SpaceX test track provide payoffs far in excess of their costs.

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