A step ahead within the promise of ultra-fast "hyperloops"

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MOAPA, Nevada – Hyperloop technology, which promises to move people and goods at speeds of up to 600 miles per hour, seemed long too good to be true. However, one company took an important step towards commercialization by taking two of its employees through a test system.

Virgin Hyperloop was the first to conduct a human test of the technology on Sunday on its 500-meter test track in the desert north of Las Vegas. The two volunteers, who wore casual street clothes, were placed in a capsule that was raised to 107 m.p.h. by magnets in a vacuum tube. in 6.25 seconds.

The drivers sat on molded seats that were covered with white vegan leather and were in the pure white, carbon fiber-clad capsule.

While the G-forces on the pod were three times that of an airplane, "it was much quieter than I expected," said Sara Luchian, 37, one of the company's test drivers and director of passenger experience. And unlike an airplane, there were no side forces to cause the capsule to rock, she said.

"It didn't feel much different than accelerating in a sports car," said Josh Giegel, 35, co-founder of the company and the other volunteer driver.

"This is a historic step," said Jay Walder, the company's chief executive officer, referring to 20 months of planning. "I don't think you can overdo it. This is a moon shot moment. I have no doubt that this will change the world."

It is still unclear whether it will be a giant leap for humanity.

Virgin's test may be as symbolic as it is critical to the ultimate success of the technology. While the pod drove much slower than Hyperloops proponents claim the technology can do, the company’s employees have cited it as a safety milestone.

"The main question I get from investors is, 'Is it safe enough to drive? "Said Giegel." We are normal people, we are not astronauts. This shows that it is safe, and observers can return this to their investors and interested communities. "

The test also gives a sense of reality to an otherwise abstract science fiction-like construct. “They can show the most elegant graph, but at the end of the day it matters if people drive it. This is an example of a picture that is worth a thousand words, ”said Ms. Luchian.

The modern Hyperloop concept was first described in 2012 by Elon Musk, the top manager of SpaceX and Tesla. He offered the idea to anyone who wanted to use it, and neither he nor his companies are working on hyperloops.

Virgin Hyperloop, which includes Richard Branson's Virgin Group as a minority investor, is one of several companies looking to commercialize the technology. They hope that it will eventually move passengers between cities and cargo to and from ports.

If it works as advertised, travel time could be cut significantly – a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco could be less than an hour, for example.

Mr. Walder has an in-depth knowledge of transportation systems and has served as the head of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Transport for London. Mr. Walder claimed that Hyperloop technology could be the first new mass transit system in a century.

"The US Interstate Highway System, which began in 1956, cannot be the end of our imagination for how we get around," he said. With Hyperloop we can have a fundamentally different transportation system.

In contrast to trains that run according to fixed timetables, Hyperloop pods function more like intelligent elevators. Artificial intelligence would adjust destinations, the number of capsules in a convoy and the departure times as needed.

Many experts are skeptical that the technology will deliver on its big promises or be commercially viable.

A truck that hits the tube could shut down the system, said Carlo Van de Weijer, general manager of the Dutch Eindhoven AI Systems Institute. Expensive maintenance would be required as the system ages. Hyperloops may also not be able to carry as many people or goods as their proponents claim, as individual pods would have to slow down to get into stubs.

"Every breakthrough starts with a strange idea," said Dr. Van de Weijer. "But not every strange idea is a breakthrough."

Like high-speed rail systems, hyperloop companies must acquire expensive rights of way, said Juan Matute, assistant director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The tubes that carry Hyperloop pods need to be very straight for high speed driving, and the curves need to be very wide. Once the routes are set, acquiring any piece of land you need can be a nightmare. "Once a route has been chosen, there are no alternatives," said Matute. "Airlines don't have this problem."

Still, some government officials and Hyperloop entrepreneurs are determined to pursue the technology. Virgin Hyperloop, which has doubled its workforce to 300 in the past two years and raised over $ 400 million, has selected West Virginia as the location for a certification center and six mile test track.

Several projects are being planned: a route between Pune and Mumbai in India; another between Jeddah and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia; and one that connects Chicago, Columbus, Ohio and Pittsburgh.

"We are very positive and very excited about the opportunities for Hyperloop," said Thea Ewing, director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.

The council estimates that over 30 years a hyperloop connecting these cities will displace 1.9 billion car and truck trips, cut CO2 emissions by 2.4 million tons, and bring economic benefits of $ 300 billion would generate.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a Los Angeles and Dubai-based company, has built a 320-meter test track in Toulouse, France, and is planning a 1,000-meter test track for Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. In addition, the company has entered into a partnership with a container operator in the port of Hamburg to develop a system for freight transport.

The ability to safely move people at this stage of technology development isn't that important, said the company's executive director Andres de Leon. "We're testing the program from an engineer's point of view, not from a marketer's point of view."

In the Netherlands, Hardt, a Hyperloop company with 35 employees, has built a 30-meter track on which the company can test its levitation, propulsion and lane change technologies. The company has teamed up with Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam to investigate the feasibility of a hyperloop linking key airports in the Netherlands, France, Germany, Belgium and the UK.

But it is freight movement that Hardt first develops. "It's less risky and easier for stakeholders if we don't highlight passengers," said Mars Geuze, the company's chief commercial officer. "It's easier to take smaller steps."

Two other companies, TransPod in Toronto and Zeleros in Valencia, Spain, are also developing Hyperloop systems.

Hyperloop companies have been encouraged by the government's findings that the technology is doable. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation hired the Federal Railroad Administration to develop standards and regulations for hyperloops.

In Europe, several Hyperloop companies have set up a technical committee to develop standards that they hope will be adopted by the European Union.

After Mr. Giegel and Ms. Luchian entered the capsule, it was pushed into a decompression chamber to wait for a vacuum to be created. At that point the gate valve opened and the pod entered the tube, ready for the test.

Virgin's successful human testing could give real believers in the technology a psychological boost. The company's executives believe the system will be commercialized by the end of the decade.

"This technology could be the transition into the future that we all want," said Giegel. "Today we went from childhood to puberty."