What’s the hype around Hyperloop?

Few entrepreneurs gain as much attention as Elon Musk. Whether its SpaceX or Neuralink, his radical visons of the future draw a frenzy of speculation and excitement.

Musk has already delved into freight transportation, with the roll-out of Tesla trucks – electric semi-trailers capable of pulling 36 metric tonnes 300-500 miles without refuelling. Hyperloop is a far more grandiose project. It is a transport mode that uses a sealed capsule inside a vacuum tube, propelled by magnetic levitation. The capsules could conceivably transport passengers or freight across vast distances at speeds of 600-1,000 km/h.

Taking the top possible speed of 1,000 km/h, Hyperloop would supposedly allow a 4 day truck journey, or 23 hour flight, to be completed in 16 hours. It is also claimed the cost is just 1.5 times more than trucking.

Of course, this does not account for the vast sums needed to build the brand new infrastructure in the first place. The lines require securely built, pipeline-type tube structures connecting cities. Arguably the development of high speed rail is a more feasible proposition.

Ti spoke to Juan Quintana, Analyst at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies to discuss the potential logistical implications of Elon Musk’s transportation masterplan.

He explained how potential suitors could use the system for inner city e-commerce deliveries for example. Hyperloop could give shippers the opportunity to plant large distribution centres further outside population centres, thus making savings on more expensive city warehouse space. Hyperloop is able to transport products into the city centre at rapid speeds, saving time despite the longer distances between warehouses and population centres. The system would allow larger distribution centres to serve multiple population centres at once. One touted proposal was for a Hyperloop connecting Barcelona and Madrid in just half an hour. A distribution centre built in the middle would have the ability to serve both centres.

Quintana argued this could give shippers the opportunity to get shipments to customers in one- or two-hour delivery windows. Currently, those providers that do offer such a service do so at a loss, but Hyperloop offers an alternative here. However, for this to work, handling and transportation issues at the first and last mile stages still need to be addressed. It is not clear that hyperloop would be any cheaper than current services. Additionally, with passenger transport being the most obvious application of the technology, there is no guarantee that freight movement would gain precedence. 

The system has a variety of other potential implications. DP World and Virgin have partnered on a Hyperloop project at the port of Dubai. The limitations for inner city delivery clearly apply here too, and the system will require a vastly different approach to handling than ordinary container freight movements, which is where DP World will look to lend their expertise.

Ultra-high-speed freight transport is a highly desirable prospect. Time-sensitive freight accounts for one third of global cargo by some estimates and the rapidly expanding e-commerce market and growing “on-demand” consumer culture means this desire is only likely to heighten. Whether Hyperloop can fulfil this remains to be seen. There is a substantial amount of work to be done to ensure the technology’s benefits outweigh its limitations.

Source: Transport Intelligence, August 14, 2018

Author: Andy Ralls


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