Hyperloop and the future of transportation

by Matthew Reynolds

When Elon Musk first came up with the idea for the “hyperloop,” I smiled and thought, “that’s a cute, futuristic concept that I’ll almost certainly never see in my lifetime.” Now, I eat my words; it’s time to start thinking about the future of transportation.

Earlier this week, Hyperloop One announced that they were looking into building a station in Moscow. The high-speed train system looks to shrink transport times from hours to minutes by shuttling people across massive distances in low-pressure tubes at over 750 mph. Now, after a successful test run in May, Hyperloop One has advanced their project by officially securing Moscow as their fourth host city, linking together the St. Petersburg and Moscow areas with China to improve trade routes. The May test run alone has shown that this idea isn’t a pipe dream anymore, but a legitimate work-in-progress. Russia has bought in.

Video from The Wall Street Journal’s article, “Hyperloop One Accelerates Toward Future With High Speed Test”

 

After the reality of this set in, I had to pinch myself to make sure I hadn’t accidentally stepped into a science fiction novel. Living in a world where someone can get from Los Angeles to New York in three hours had always sounded like a concept in an Asimov story, or a scene from The Jetsons. But the reality is that hyperloop is actually happening, and inching closer to large-scale demonstrations. If hyperloop were to become widespread, the world would become a much smaller place, connecting big cities with rural areas across the world in a shorter time than it takes to drive through the Lincoln Tunnel during rush hour. But hyperloop sparks a much larger discussion: if the hyperloop system can become a reality, what else does the future of transportation hold?

My knee-jerk connection turns towards self-driving vehicles. We know that self-driving cars exist and can be found on the roads of America in select cities already, but one day, these cars may become the standard method of day-to-day transportation. Beyond that, the possible future of AI-controlled vehicles picking up passengers at the touch of a button on a phone doesn’t seem too outlandish, considering we’re already halfway there with services like Uber and Lyft. There would almost certainly be benefits to the typical commuter, who would see their productivity increase by getting tasks done during the trip (or by getting more sleep). But what kind of ramifications would this bring to industries? How would insurance companies fare in this future? How would the auto industry adjust to a society that has no need to own cars when taxi services can pick up passengers at a fraction of the cost? Would the purpose of auto companies switch to exclusively creating cars and trucks specifically designed for taxi and shipping fleets?

What about air travel? Airline companies are constantly coming up with greener ways to fly, bigger planes with bigger engines…but could we go even further? One company in China, EHang, has already created a model of an automated, single-passenger drone that can transport one passenger without any human interaction. Could single-passenger drone travel eventually overtake self-driving cars in, let’s say, 50 years? And if it did, how would aerospace companies adapt?

And even beyond all that, what if we reach a scientific breakthrough - and a whole new type of transportation emerges? (Please, let’s create the teleporter.)

These are just some initial, top-level thoughts, and there is much thinking still to be done about this. We’re still a ways off from seeing these ideas reach fruition because the cost of construction is still limiting. But so much progress has already been made that it’s impossible to ignore what the future holds. Engineers need to perfect their products first, with years of regulations and safety checks to sift through after, before mass production and widespread use. But the wheels of the future have been put into motion and, considering how much progress we’ve already made, I’m convinced there’s no stopping this train.

Matthew Reynolds is an Editorial Assistant at Oxford Economics, where he aids research programs in a variety of industries.