Future of Transportation

by Drew Wilson

Published

The future of transportation has been running through my head constantly ever since watching Elon Musk say he's working on a new form of transportation that is "a cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table" at All Things D.

Hyperloop

He calls it the "Hyperloop." Everyone else calls it a Vactrain or Evacuated Tube Transport. Essentially it's a track enclosed in a tube that has all the air removed from it, making it a frictionless vacuum. The train would move through the tube via magnetic propulsion similar to the Monorail at Disneyland; which was built in 1956. This is called Magnetic Levitation or Maglev for short. Because there is no friction it would be able to reach speeds up to 4,000mph! At that speed you'd only feel 1G of force, which is the exact same force gravity is applying on you at this very moment.

That's amazing! You could travel from New York to Los Angeles in just 45 minutes for a ticket cost of just $100. Washington D.C. to China in just 2 hours! Imagine ordering a new york style pizza from New York and a delivery guy arriving at your door in Florida 40 minutes later. Or living in California and commuting an hour and a half to China to work every day.

It would be a very comfy ride too. You would experience complete dead silence except for the low hum of the electric lights inside the train car. The train car would have no rattle or shake to it at all as you ride along completely sealed away form the outdoor elements, though you'd be able to still look out the window and see the scenery. It would never stop running and be open 24/7 and it would be vastly safer than riding in a car on a freeway as the entire thing would be automated by software.

The way the internet changed us and what it means to be connected on earth, so will high speed transportation bring our species into a whole new state of existence.

Implementation

Building the Hyperloop would be just 1/10th the cost of a high speed rail system, and 1/4th the cost of a freeway. Maglev technologies are also extremely energy efficient. Another Maglev system funded by NASA called SkyTran has a near zero energy impact. It uses solar power and needs almost no power beyond that.

SkyTran is super close to being put into public use. It's being developed in Mountain View, California and the mayor there has publicly stated he wants Mountain View to be the first city to use this once it's ready, which is only a year or so away. SkyTran tracks and cars can be assembled like legos and can be mass produced very inexpensively. The CEO of SkyTran said that instead of spending $500 million dollars on a rail system, a city only needs to spend $5 million to completely setup and implement SkyTran. SkyTran cars cruise around at speeds of up to 150mph. But it's configurable by the passenger, as the cars are for 1-2 people. You can even buy a SkyTran car instead of sharing one with others. SkyTran aims to replace public transportation and eventually individual transportation. If they're able to eventually take this inter-city it would be amazing!

The Hyperloop and SkyTran are similar in vision, but have very different use cases. The way I see it, the Hyperloop would be used for long distances like inter-continental and inter-state travel. Systems like SkyTran would be used for city and inter-city travel.

Shipping

If it hasn't already happened by now then I'm sure a meeting at FedEx and/or UPS will be called in session soon to discuss investing serious money into the Hyperloop system and getting their own private infrastructure setup. It would be similar to the days of the wild west in that the people/companies who control the railways control the power. Definitely not to the extreme it was then, but whichever shipping company gets their tubes built first will completely destroy all competition until they're able to build their own tubes. If FedEx builds theirs first, UPS will have to build their own or pay FedEx to fees to use their tubes... which would never happen because it doesn't make any economic sense.

We the consumers would benefit immensely because the competition will be massive between these shipping companies. It's literally innovate or die for them in this case. We'll see dramatically improved shipping times. "Next Day" will become the "Ground Shipping" of future. In the future you'd be able to select what time of the current day you'd like your item to arrive, rather than which day.

Beyond buying things for the house, kids and office, this drastic change in availability of physical goods and supplies will open up completely new avenues for business and rapidly speed up the evolution of technology (medicine, computers, bio, infrastructure, robotics, etc) and the evolution of man.

Challenges

The Hyperloop has one very major design challenge that I can see, along with some other relatively minor challenges. The track would need to be nearly completely straight and void of as many turns (or changes in directions) as possible. Any slight change in direction would create Centrifugal force as your riding along, and at 4,000mph you might just pass out (or melt) from the intense Gs you'd be subjected to. Fortunately the Hyperloop would be able to slow down around corners, but when your moving at 4,000mph you'd need to start slowing down way before you start approaching the turn.

Building a near straight track would mean building a track from scratch. You'd have to go out and blow up mountains and hills, mow down forests and cross oceans. That's expensive and time consuming. I don't think we'll see an inter-continental Hyperloop anytime soon. However, if you can use the existing freeway networks on our planet you've got flat, paved land that is organized and runs from city to city, state to state, and country to country to put a couple Hyperloop tubes on top of. These train cars would be moving much slower than 4,000mph in most parts of the track as our freeways are very curvy. But it'd still be faster than anything else we have now.

Exciting Times Ahead

I really wish I could be involved with this technology somehow, just not sure how at this point. I'm super excited for it and hope that we'll see something soon. Elon has said he plans to publish his research and plans for the Hyperloop before August 12th 2013. Hopefully we'll see more companies like ET3 and SkyTran jump on board so we can get some tubes put into the air soon! If I was an investor, I know where my money would be going right now. But I'm not.

You can help speed things along by spreading the word about these new technologies. If there is more public interest then investors, companies (like NASA), governments and institutions will be more comfortable and excited about investing in these new transportation systems. Let's make it happen soon!