TEECOM designer Paul Orozco had just transferred to Sacramento State when he saw a flyer seeking team members for the Hyperloop project hosted by SpaceX. It was the first Hyperloop student competition ever, and the Sac State team jumped in with enthusiasm but little discipline. Through a year of competition, the team iterated multiple pod designs but fell short of a competitive working model (although Paul’s levitation subsystem succeeded!). “To be fair,” says Paul, “we built our pod for about $65,000 and others spent up to millions.”
The experience gave Paul the hyperloop bug. Hyperloop transportation technologies have huge potential to change the urban fabric. In the same way automobiles gave us the suburbs, might a hyperloop give us hyperburbs? We sat down with Paul to talk.
There are several variations on it, but the main point is that it’s a high speed transit system kind of like a train but taking it to a whole new level. Train “pods” travel through vacuum tubes, which dramatically reduces air friction, which is a major limitation on current train systems.
The hyperloop would travel at 700 MPH, and could get humans from SF to LA in about half an hour, as well as having fewer safety checks than air travel. This should significantly cut time to travel state-to-state. It’s not necessarily designed for long-distance travel because usually the design is more point-to-point. Right now the main focus is to have it be for something like connecting major surrounding counties and large cities.
A lot of the implementation is up in the air in terms of the pod structure and tube structure and how it gets integrated into the urban and non-urban environment, as well as the station design for both of those.
In your opinion is the hyperloop purely an experiment, or will we see it implemented on a scale that will make an impact?
I think we’ll see it implemented. The question is when. When also depends on public acceptance of it, which will help adjust regulations on it. There are quite a few companies building and testing couple-mile-long routes to gain more data to ensure they can create it on a full-scale system. There’s Virgin Hyperloop, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), Arrivo, and also a few others that were previously student groups. Technically [Elon Musk’s] Boring Company is for just boring tunnels but there’s talk about how it’s specializing in making a hyperloop.
Walk us through a typical hyperloop trip in, say 2030.
That will dramatically differ depending on who you ask. I’ll describe what I understand of Virgin Hyperloop One because they’ve released more info about it. They’re trying to make it so you can call an autonomous taxi or car that will come to you and take you to the station, integrating into the hyperloop time frames (departure times).
You will be able to get into one of various types of pods: workstation, lounge, economy. Will there be a security check element or something like the FAA? That’s up to federal regulation. If we don’t need that, it will be a quick transition in and out.
Cars would congregate to the hyperloop station. Hyperloop One’s idea is that the base station is a giant circle. Pods come in and go through a brief depressurization, everyone will come out, new passengers will board. There are models where the autonomous car goes right into a pod.
Then it becomes like a traditional train experience except there’s no windows and you’re traveling at 700 MPH. There’s been talk of virtual reality screens giving views of a virtual outside, or virtual reality headsets.
The idea with the stations is that, in the urban environment, they’ll be near destinations, either above or below ground. In an environment like San Francisco underground may be difficult, depending on underground transportation system coordination. When nearing the cities, it will likely go underground to avoid environmental impact and save real estate but the locations will have to be coordinated. Stations aren’t like a normal train station because the pods fork off a main track so that you don’t have to stop at every single station. Having to stop adds significant time to a trip because of the de-acceleration window.
What are some of the challenges in turning the hyperloop into a reality?
Technical, human acceptance, or governmental? Technically, the infrastructure is probably the hardest part. Infrastructure hasn’t necessarily been figured out for normal train systems, let alone hyperloop. The fastest trains, in Japan, are only that way because of the infrastructure and specialized tracks. Our current train systems can’t go anywhere as fast because our tracks aren’t that straight. If you take a train from San Francisco to Sacramento you’re going to feel jerks, and at even 100 MPH you would be extremely uncomfortable. In terms of civil engineering that’s one of the biggest challenges: anticipating how tracks might shift over time and how to compensate for that.
Government regulation will also be a huge factor. I don’t see it being used in America first. Probably in UAE first, possibly Japan.
Being able to travel, say, from San Francisco to LA in half an hour would really alter our relationship to distance and place. How do you think the hyperloop might change how we live and work?
Dramatically. You can think of how big changes in transportation can change the world similar to how the internet connects information across vast distances, except now it’s with physical objects. Materials will get from one place to another faster. Manufacturing posts can be further away. You could live in LA and work in SF. It’s going to advance business development quite a bit. It will probably also change the way urban environments are thought of. You can think of an entire state as a city.
The speed of travel will bring people closer together — you can visit people who are quite far away much more easily, and coordinate with people in person, which always enhances. For example, my dad had to travel down to LA last week and it took him the entire day, leaving by airplane at 4 in the morning, just to go down there to do project coordination. In the future that will be a single afternoon.