Your browser is not supported. Please update it.

16 July 2020

Hyperloop technologies can now be tested – soon they will be here

We’re not sure that Stephenson would have been glad to have the TÜV SÜD around in 1829 when he perfected steam locomotion, but the company is certainly ready for the next generation of fast trains – those based on Elon Musk’s Hyperloop invention.

Some may argue whether or not Musk had much to do with it, as he posited a single San Francisco to Los Angeles route in 2012 and then abandoned the idea, but he open sourced all his company’s thoughts and advanced the technology of a tube for carrying fast transit capsules full of people, to the point where others have taken it seriously. We heard the idea a full ten years earlier when a 3,000 mile per hour tube was considered from New York to Los Angeles, but at the time this was really just a science fiction idea.

To signify that vying consortia are taking Hyperloop seriously, TÜV SÜD, a 150 year old German technical testing organization, is trying to create testing dominance in Hyperloops by issuing the first set of comprehensive safety guidelines. If people build to its guidelines in Europe, it only stands to reason that TÜV SÜD will get to test it, and that would be a great contract to have, and one that would advertise its test ability across other technologies.

We asked TÜV SÜD for a copy of the guidelines and despite the €1,000 price, they sent us a copy for review, and it shows a sophisticated thought process which is serious. Hyperloops are definitely going to get built, in volume in the next ten years. Companies thought to be chasing the first working system include Virgin Hyperloop One, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, TransPod, DGWHyperloop and a handful of others.

The concept is fundamentally a tube with no air in it, so there is no air resistance, in which a capsule full of people can travel unimpeded using very little energy, over long distances. Once people realized how dangerous and difficult it is to maintain a real vacuum, they reduced this to the air pressure experienced on the outside of high altitude flights, although it is still not a breathable amount of air, and the idea remained unlikely until many safety aspects were designed in, namely how people can breathe safely if the atmosphere in the capsule is mixed with the very thin atmosphere outside it.

Today it is thought of as a system which travels over distances up to 500 miles, not longer, at speeds of about 80% the speed of sound, just over 600 Mph. The shuttle or capsule is either held up by magnets, or is sat on a cushion of air, created by pushing the thin air underneath it, as a way to prevent it reaching the Kantrowitz limit where a “choked flow” of gas blocks acceleration. Usually they are powered by linear induction, somewhat like some Japanese rail systems.

Many of the companies chasing pilots have raised in excess of $200 million, and will raise a lot more once they go on to build one for use in anger.  But as Elon Musk said back in 2012, what’s the point in creating something that is faster than a train but more expensive, when true innovation will only take off only if it is both faster AND less expensive. So compared with the UK’s HS2, a new rail link which will connect London to cities in the North like Manchester and which will cost over $100 billion to build, the Hyperloop is designed to go longer distances and do it far more cheaply.

The proposed safety guidelines from TÜV SÜD is based on one existing implementation from Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and covers a host of subject including things like heating, cooling ventilation and lighting, fire detection, the line layout, how the tubing is made, how it has joins built into it, what the support pylons must be made of which hold it overground, even down to what the pylon foundations need to be made of, and under what conditions a segment of the tube can travel underground.

There is particular focus on how the tube depressurizes, and how to isolate a segment of the tube so that a single segment can be re-pressurized. It defines docking devices, and everything down to the thermal storage devices retained for the heating.

Yes of course it takes in the control system architecture and the tracking and says what everything must be made of, using existing standards where appropriate and existing European numbered component definitions for how to build a capsule, how to make it survive a collision with a piece of the roof or a support which has somehow landed in its path.

Junctions and stations are defined and how the capsule must be levitated, and how acceleration must be almost beneath human notice, and yet still beat the land speed record every time.

There is special emphasis on braking, certainly when another capsule is around, or when it is close to the end of the line and it has a variety of fail-safes built in.

In the end the document even discusses how the lavatory system works and empties and how catering can happen on the move. However given that most journeys will cut a 3 or 4 hour journey to under 20 minutes, there will be barely the time for a cup of coffee on journeys. Although there is a lot of detail about how to prevent fires, we cannot see a largely oxygen free external area burning that well.

The system anticipates the failure of any given component and what the outcome should be, how failures are detected and tested for, and how safety is maintained even with a failed component. And it provides for working in a depressurized tube, but also in emergencies lowering speeds to travel in a pressurized tube.

An initial first set of guidelines were published in 2019 and had feedback from the European Commission and the US Department of Transportation and this public version is the result.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies was the basis for the security guidelines and so naturally it has announced that it has passed the test from TÜV SÜD this week.

When we think about journeys around the world of this length, we come back to that San Francisco to Los Angeles route, from New York to Boston, and from any number of European capital Cities to another, such as Amsterdam or Brussels to Paris. Pick a country and you can easily come up with an example, but it is not the train or road network that it mostly disrupts, it is air travel.

Andres De Leon, CEO HyperloopTT described it as “the safest form of transportation ever created by humankind.” It will have to be, because it will be replacing what is currently known as the safest form of travel currently known to man – air travel.