In 2013 Elon Musk proposed a “new” type of transportation system. I say “new” with quotations because the idea has been around for a while, but Musk has put his own, sensible spin on the situation to try and bring it to reality. He has called this system Hyperloop.
Usually, the first time I explain Hyperloop to someone, they smile wistfully at the idea like I am talking about some crazy invention that might belong best in the movie Tomorrowland. Musk’s choice of a name probably doesn’t help, since it sounds like something from a science fiction novel. In short, Hyperloop takes the low-drag advantage gained by high-flying planes and combines it with the low-friction concept of an air hockey table. Hyperloop would allow passengers to travel at speeds of up to 1200km/h in an encapsulated environment. Passengers would ride in 20 person capsules that can depart whenever needed. Another option is to allow personal vehicles to be driven onto a capsule and transported to their destination. For a more detailed description you can read Musk’s report on the SpaceX website.
There are plenty of criticisms of Hyperloop, most of them grounded in Musk’s incredibly low cost estimates, though there is also some worry that people will not find the new technology useful in the long run. This opposition appears to be similar to the opposition to high speed railways, namely that the cost is too high and nobody will use it. In this post, we will look at how Hyperloop is truly different than any other transportation system, and why I think that will make it a success: variable frequency
In essence, there is no current mode of mass transportation that allows for vehicles to be dispatched whenever. This, combined with the small capsule size (relative to airplanes and train travel – Hyperloop’s most direct competition). The flexibility is endless, but one example would be to hold a capsule at a station until full, or until it has waited a fixed amount of time. In this way, you can guarantee a certain frequency during periods of low travel demand, but you can flexibly add in capsules as needed – something you cannot do at an airport, for example. Musk proposes security screening similar to an airport, which would leave plenty of time to set up extra capsules if the demand spikes unexpectedly. Airlines aren’t able to scramble another plane and crew that quickly. People only rarely show up at the airport and want to buy a ticket for the next flight; Hyperloop customers are intended to do exactly that.
This variable frequency, combined with the two-station travel (Musk does propose potential stops along the way if needed – I’m not convinced that’s the right direction), is a transit operation theoretician’s dream. There is all kinds of room for optimization, and the math gets simpler when you don’t have to try and figure out how many people will be waiting down the line. The ability to respond instantly to a single demand source will put this mode of mass transportation on a whole new level, and that in turn will draw more people to it.
There are plenty of technical challenges ahead for Hyperloop. Musk is building a couple of test tracks and holding design competitions, and he’s helping the whole process by keeping the patents and research open for anyone to use. If his past success is any indicator, Hyperloop will be a viable technology sooner than later. We might as well start planning for it, and I plan on talking more about the potential of Hyperloop in other posts.