In the deserts of the United Arab Emirates, one of the most futuristic, fantastical technologies could find footing at last. Hyperloop, the proposed series of tubes that could shuttle humans and goods in pods at breakneck speeds — up to 1,130kph (700mph) — could find a golden opportunity for actual realisation in the UAE.
The company, called Hyperloop One, announced this week that it struck up a deal with the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) of Dubai to build a Hyperloop that could link Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and eventually to other Emirates. The company aims to make that 160-kilometre trip in 12 minutes. In this promotional video for Hyperloop One, we get an idea of what that commute could look like.
Hyperloop is touted to be the next generation of transportation, swapping emissions-spewing planes and traffic-jamming cars with superfast, people-carrying pods shooting down airtight tubes that stretch across states and territories. It was ideated by Tesla and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk. These “Hyperpods” fit from as few as six people to 100 at most, the company says. For this Dubai plan, the company wants to build a Hyperloop that both transports people and ships goods.
“The set of products we’re showing include Hyperportals (the equivalent of rail stations or airports) and autonomous Hyperpods that dock into a Hyperloop One transporter for longer distance travel but otherwise zip around town on their own,” the press release from Hyperloop One reads. “Our infrastructure doesn't have to work with our pods alone. We can turn it into a platform that works with self-driving Teslas, BMWs, or any of the urban mini-cars on the horizon.” To do this, the company says it will partner with companies like Uber and Chinese ride-sharing company Didi.
Right now, one of the fastest land-based modes of transport is the high-speed rail train, a mode of transportation that’s long existed in many nations, from China to Germany. Japan’s bullet train, the shinkansen, arrived in 1964, and it has become as much of an icon for the country as sushi and cherry blossoms. It's known not only for its speed (320kph, or 200mph) and punctuality, but also for its remarkable safety record: In more than 50 years of operation, there have been zero accident-related fatalities.
Shipping people at faster speeds than shinkansen is a goal that many places are aggressively pursuing, however — including Japan itself. Last year, the country broke train land speed records with a train powered by magnetic levitation, reaching 603kph. These “maglev” trains switch powered wheels for a magnetic levitation system that pulls the train along without having it touch the track, eliminating friction and ratcheting up speeds. China, meanwhile, has been running a 430kph (268mph) maglev train in Shanghai for over a decade.
But Hyperloop is faster and even more futuristic than maglev. Previously, it was pitched as a mode of transport that would zoom riders from Los Angeles to San Francisco — which are separated by over 600 kilometres — in thirty minutes. Earlier this year, over 100 teams of international students participated in a design competition for the Hyperloop pods; a few months later, the propulsion system was tested in the deserts of the US state of Nevada.
Hyperloop is far from an inevitability, however. Substantial roadblocks exist, from funding to feasibility. Some projections predict such a project could cost as much as £33 million per kilometre, and the technological demands required to keep people safe when they're being hurled at demon speeds are significant. Further, how practical is it? How often would someone actually need to make an afternoon jaunt to two cities hundreds of kilometres apart? Then there's the matter of securing permissions to build, and some places are difficult to infilitrate: In the US state of Texas, some residents are resisting even building a standard bullet train linking Houston and Dallas, and don't want construction to cut through highways or their own backyards.
So, what comes next? Hyperloop One is spending the next 12 weeks teaming up with an architecture firm and transportation consultants to nail down details that could actually allow construction to begin: Where to build, and how to build a dual mode of transport that accommodates both humans and cargo.
For now, though, the real question is whether typical commuters will be comfortable with the notion of hurtling along at 1,200kph, cooped up in a hollowed-out tube.
Correction, 12 November, 5:09 EST: This story mistakenly identified Elon Musk as a founder of Hyperloop One.
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