Hyperloop: Design Lessons from George Jetson


“JETSOOOOON!!!” calls Mr. Spacely from a monitor somewhere in George Jetson’s office. George immediately jumps into a human sized pneumatic tube, arriving seconds later so the berating can continue in person.

pneumatictraveldevice

The Concept of the Hyperloop seemed far-fetched in 1963 when The Jetsons first aired. However, we are quickly approaching an inflection point between conventional transit systems and futuristic transit capability and design, and Hyperloop could put us at George and Jane Jetson’s front door.

What is a Hyperloop?

In theory, the Hyperloop could leave San Francisco, CA and arrive in Los Angeles, CA in 30 minutes (383 miles).  I was a skeptic until I read through Elon Musk‘s white paper design study. Follow Elon on Twitter (@elonmusk).

Here is a brief post covering some of the interesting facts about Hyperloop technology and a few ways it could affect the commercial real estate landscape.

 

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The Hyperloop concept was initially created by Elon and his team to provide a better, cheaper solution to the California High-Speed Rail Project (CHSRP), which has fallen under heavy scrutiny for costs estimated at $84 million per mile over the proposed 800 mile route.

Instead of a rail system, Hyperloop is designed as a high speed/low pressure tube system set above the ground on pylon structures.  The system would be solar and battery powered using the same technology we’ve seen in the Tesla Model S.

Screenshot 2017-11-01 12.56.53

I’m not going to geek out on why they chose a low pressure system other than it follows the science behind improved aerodynamics for jets flying at high altitudes.  The low pressure system also addresses issues that arise from the Kantrowitz Limit.

Overall, Musk looks at Hyperloop as a fifth form of transportation going beyond the conventional road, rail, air and sea transit systems we use today.  Musk goes on to say that any massive investment in our transportation infrastructure should be faster, safer, cost less, be immune to weather, sustainable, self-powering, earthquake resistant, more convenient and not disruptive to those along the route.

“The Hyperloop (or something similar) is, in my opinion, the right solution for the specific case of high traffic city pairs that are less than about 1500 km or 900 miles apart. Around that inflection point, I suspect that supersonic air travel ends up being faster and cheaper. With a high enough altitude and the right geometry, the sonic boom noise on the ground would be no louder than current airliners, so that isn’t a showstopper. Also, a quiet supersonic plane immediately solves every long distance city pair without the need for a vast new worldwide infrastructure.  However, for a sub several hundred mile journey, having a supersonic plane is rather pointless, as you would spend almost all your time slowly ascending and descending and very little time at cruise speed. In order to go fast, you need to be at high altitude where the air density drops exponentially, as air at sea level becomes as thick as molasses (not literally, but you get the picture) as you
approach sonic velocity.” – Elon Musk (Hyperloop Design Study)

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Hyperloop Misconceptions: “Ru-roh Rorge”

  • Pneumatic tubes are a great way to visualize how Hyperloop might work, but it is completely wrong from a design and engineering standpoint.  The fans required to push air through a pneumatic tube system over 350 miles long would create too much friction and require too much energy to facilitate.
  • Vacuum tubes with electromagnetic pod suspension is equally as unsustainable as scaled up pneumatic tubes.  The ability to maintain a true vacuum is hard enough to maintain in laboratories and would be impossible to achieve, much less maintain, over a 350 mile stretch.

How much does it cost?

There are two designs of the Hyperloop.  A smaller passenger design and a larger design that allows for passengers and larger cargo.  The cargo version of the Hyperloop is slightly larger to accommodate cargo loads (e.g. cars, equipment, freight), but the increased cost is relatively minimal.

The estimated cost to build a Hyperloop from San Francisco to Los Angeles (approx. 383 mi) comes in around $15.5 million per mile for the passenger version and $19.6 million per mile for the larger cargo version.  This is a fraction of the cost California will encounter with the CHSRP, which is expected to cost $64 billion when it’s completed ($84 million per mile).

Why is it so much cheaper?

  • Putting the tube system up on pylons requires much less land acquisition and infrastructure components. Rail systems typically require a cleared area 100′ wide  to build up the ground for the track system.
  • Since the pylons take up less space, it becomes more feasible to follow the path and infrastructure of major interstates like the I-5 from LA to San Fran without causing too much disruption.
  • A pylon system would be much less disruptive to farmers and rural communities that often times have to go miles out of their way to cross rail and highway systems.
  • The tubes can be built off site and installed in sections, which would be connected using an orbital welding system which cuts down on labor costs and essentially becomes a plug and play system (think easy like Lincoln Logs).
  • The main power for driving the pods comes from the batteries in the pod itself and is supported by solar arrays along the tube.
  • The pod rides on a cushion of air (think air hockey table) that is powered by a Tesla Model S battery that has been “rolled flat.” The pod only uses energy to maintain velocity 10% of the time otherwise it is coasting on air.  See the chart below reflecting energy requirements of other transit systems.

Screenshot 2017-11-01 12.56.42

What does this mean for commercial real estate?

  • Hyperloop stations would see restaurant and retail success similar to major airports by capitalizing on captive passenger traffic and tourism.
  • The capacity for each pod to carry up to 7500 kg in cars and cargo will provide a streamlined solution for LTL freight and distribution routes in markets with access to a Hyperloop cargo station.
  • Areas surrounding Hyperloop stations would be prime real estate for regional distribution and third party logistics firms.
  •  Since this is an open source project, I wouldn’t be surprised to see dedicated FedEx, UPS, Amazon, Wal-mart and other branded pods dedicated to freight and distribution with a hub near each Hyperloop station.
  • Passenger rail systems will not survive in markets served by a Hyperloop since the cost to use Hyperloop will be around $20 for a one way ticket (Amtrak from Kansas City to Saint Louis is more than twice that amount).
  • Industrial rail will transport heavier equipment and systems not supported by Hyperloop from intermodal and manufacturing facilities.

Speed - Train in Tokyo

Hyperloop technology is still in early test phases, but since it began as an open source project, there is a lot of interest in developing the technology from groups around the world.  While I’ve focused on LA to San Francisco, there is more speculation that the first loop will be completed in Europe.

Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson have partnered in developing Virgin Hyperloop One,  and competing group Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) is also pursuing their own version of the Hyperloop.  I look forward to updating this post as more development comes to light.

I would highly recommend reading Elon’s design and specs information referenced below.

Please keep the conversation going and leave a comment or share with a friend!

Thanks for reading!


Other Resources:

  1. https://newatlas.com/missouri-hyperloop-25-minutes/51604/
  2. https://hyperloop-one.com/blog/introducing-virgin-hyperloop-one
  3. https://science.howstuffworks.com/transport/engines-equipment/hyperloop.htm
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperloop
  5. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/hyperloop-latest-innovation-pretty-much-series-of-tubes-180955735/
  6. California High Speed Rail Project (CHSRP)
  7. SpaceX Hyperloop
  8. Elon’s White Paper on Hyperloop Design and Specs