Elon Musk rekindled the dream of travel in a tube. It’s not a new idea. Engineers in New York experimented with a pneumatic subway in 1867. A hundred years later, the Federal Railway Administration experimented with a train that traveled on an air cushion. In 2013, Musk, reputation strong with engineering successes at SpaceX and Tesla Motors, proposed a 700 mph train-in-a-tube that could be built at a tenth of the cost of the California High Speed Rail system. He called his idea Hyperloop.
The engineering challenges are myriad. The idea inspired the dreams of many. Where there are dreams come charlatans. First came Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a crowdsourced firm devoted to making Mush’s concept a reality. Then came Hyperloop One, a venture capital funded effort with the best publicity machine going. Brogan BamBrogan, formerly chief engineer at Hyperloop One, started another, Arrivo. A couple more startups to fill journalists’ lists and it sounded like a nascent industry. This year came Hyper Chariot.
Musk, to be sure, has been the most grounded of the Hyperloop promoters. He sponsored a competition for Hyperloop vehicle designs. He built a Hyperloop test track beside the SpaceX factory in Hawthorne, California. You can read the contest rules and technical specifications. The results of the January 2017 competition are published. The Technical University of Munich won the speed contest. Notably absent from the completion were the commercial entities. They have been concentrating on production of promotional videos and their own presentations.
The newest entrant to the club of visionary companies is Hyper Chariot. Its chief operating officer is Joanna Garzilli, author of a book on intuition and self-described psychic. Before she started her own company, she worked for MTV. Her background is similar to the chairman of rival firm Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Bibop Gresta, who was formerly a VJ on MTV Italy.
Ask any aeronautical engineer to validate the design claims of the Hyperloop companies and she’ll roll her eyes. The first challenge is geometry. The faster a vehicle, the straighter a path it needs to follow, else the ride is very uncomfortable for the passenger. The original Hyperloop proposal of 700 mph requires a lot of real estate for wide turns. Hyper Chariot’s claim of 4,000 mph will be extraordinarily hard to accomplish – likely impossible on any overland routes. Passenger comfort and safety are in some ways more complicated than trips to outer space.
Why is Hyperloop attracting such a bunch of misfits? The answer is deceptively simple. Hyperloop is the confluence of a romantic vision and impossible technical requirements. The companies best equipped to build such a system, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, looked, and said, “No thanks.” That created a vacuum for startups to fufill the dream of supersonic intercity passenger transport. Who wouldn’t want to make the commute from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angles in forty-five minutes?
Some portion of the population believes that Newton’s laws of motion are merely inconveniences that can be designed around. Those same people believe that a carbon fiber composite is the magic material that will allow a manufacturer to build a 400 lb. pod for six passengers. We cannot build a six-passenger car that weighs less than 2,000 lbs.
The Hyper Chariot is technology’s version of fake news. Artful videos and catchy names like vibranium create a vision contrary to the practical limits most students should have learned in high school physics. Why do people accept these ideas? For the same reason they accept the premise of cheap, clean coal. They want to believe it, science be damned.
Hyper Chariot published a set of specifications tabulated against Hyperloop One. Nether set is credible, but the Hyper Chariot numbers look the result of an engineering school keg party. Whatever Hyperloop One claimed, Hyper Chariot claimed no less than five times better. Hyper Chariot describes a passenger throughput of 120 passengers per second. The world’s largest airport, Atlanta Hartsfield, handles 3.3 passengers per second.
The hallmark of great science fiction is that its premise is plausible — or if the key assumption is hard to stomach, the rest works. Hyper Chariot doesn’t work even as sci-fi. Chariot claims a range of 16,000 miles. Why? There is no trip on earth more than 12,500.
Hyperloop is not a waste of time. It is a great exercise for engineering students. It will produce new technologies. It just won’t produce a 4,000 mph train. Your contribution to Indiegogo will go quicker into someone’s pocket than the Chariot ever will.