The Hyperloop Could Revolutionize Travel (or Make Everyone Nauseous)



Remember the Hyperloop linear induction system that might make a bunch of people puke (but also might change the world)? Virgin Hyperloop will be unveiling their passenger vehicle, “Pegasus,” this fall at the Smithsonian FUTURES Exhibition.

The idea of a vactrain, a high-speed magnetic levitation (maglev) transport system driven – in theory – up to hypersonic speeds (4,000–5,000 mph) has been around since the early 20th century, but a number of practical factors have barred it from full realization.

More recently, Elon Musk proposed a modern take on it in 2012 – pressurized capsules on air bearings driven at (potential) high speeds by linear induction motors in sealed tubes.

Musk got the ball rolling and then open-sourced the idea to a number of companies and four design competitions – the team from the Technical University of Munich (later rebranded as TUM Hyperloop) won each contest, beating their own record each time. In 2019, their pod reached 463 km/h (288 mph).

In November 2020 Virgin Hyperloop co-founder Josh Giegel and head of Passenger Experience Sara Luchian went on the first crewed test, reaching 107.5 MPH (173 KPH) on 500 meters of track.

As if to commemorate that milestone, the Hyperloop vehicle will be unveiled to the public one year later, 11/21, at the Smithsonian Arts + Industries Building as part of its FUTURES Exhibition.

“Since opening in 1881, the Arts + Industries Building has been an incubator of ideas that, while at the time may have felt unimaginable, have gone on to profoundly impact the ways in which we experience the world around us,” said Rachel Goslins, director of the Arts + Industries Building.

“Hyperloop is one of these leaps that signal a transformative shift in how we could live and travel.”

Of course, that “transformative shift” is far from certain.

Virgin Hyperloop lays out the potential – the Pegasus vehicle would “combine an ultra-efficient electric motor, magnetic levitation, and a low-drag environment, hyperloop systems can carry more people than a subway, at airline speeds, and with zero direct emissions.”

If the tech is fully realized, the pods could – again, in theory – go up to 10x faster than commercial airlines. We’re talking 500-700 mph vs. hypersonic speeds. Even the Concorde jet could only reach Mach 2.04 (1,354 mph or 2,180 km/h).

Then again, major transportation projects are often derailed – pun very much intended – by cold, hard reality, especially in this country.

The Economist balks at Elon Musk’s proposed $6 billion Hyperloop budget, which dramatically underestimates right-of-way costs, and a number of critics have torn apart Musk’s plan to build the system on pylons along California's I-5 highway.

And of course, there’s the human factor. A prominent transportation blogger described the Hyperloop as “a terrifying ‘barf ride’ that would subject riders to violent g-forces and uncomfortable rolling, accelerating, and braking.”

You couldn’t drag me into something like that, and while everyone’s constitution is different, I’m certainly not the only one who suffers from motion sickness. Regular commercial airlines are a big enough ordeal for me, to say nothing of tiny tubes zipping around at 5-6x the speed of sound.

And those with even a mild case of claustrophobia are likely petrified at the mere thought of it.

But even if you exclude everyone whose comfort level is in the resounding negative, a working Hyperloop that realizes even a tiny fraction of its potential could, indeed, change the world. In theory…

Virgin Hyperloop’s Pegasus vehicle will be at the Smithsonian’s FUTURES exhibition from November 2021 to July 2022.