Hyperloop to bet big at Vegas – and other transport tech tales


Hyperloop Technologies (HT) will test-run its cutting-edge tube-based “fifth mode of transport” next month, on the outskirts of Reno. But while the train(ish) concept – conceived by Elon Musk in 2012 but taken up by the charges of HT CEO, CTO and co-founder Brogan BamBrogan – attempts to stay on the tracks, there are plenty of high-tech transport projects that have wowed the world, from deep-sea canals to spaceships.

Hyperloop has enjoyed plenty of hype since Tesla’s Musk mentioned it at a 2012 conference, before passing it off as he was spending plenty of time already on his electric cars and SpaceX projects (Hyperloop is featured on the SpaceX website, though it is, allegedly, unaffiliated).

It is based loosely on the pneumatic tubes that carried items around shops and offices in the 1960s, though BamBrogan’s plan works more like a Scalextric circuit, with the system’s ‘capsules’ shoved intermittently by trackside coils. The technology is guessed to have a top speed of 760mph, and acceleration of zero to 336mph in just two seconds (the current fastest-accelerating road car, the Porsche 918, reaches 60mph in 2.2secs).

The Sparks, Nevada track that Hyperloop’s test run will use is only half a mile long – which, combined with the accelerative force of the capsule, is “not the kind of Hyperloop you want to ride,” according to BamBrogan. But it will, he adds, allow the company to see how much power it can push through the coils, for a technology some think could link up parts of the U.S. on a scale not seen after the advent of the interstate highway, in 1956.

Tesla, meanwhile, has been busy creating the Gigafactory outside Sparks, which will produce more lithium ion batteries – which power Tesla cars – than the entire global output in 2013. Production will begin in 2017, by which time Musk hopes to be making the 500,000 vehicles annually, that will “force a change in automobile industry.”

But transport megaprojects are far from reserved to Tesla. Here are five other examples of giant transport plans – some of which have, or will, take off, others whose wheels have fallen off.

Panama Canal

We’re used to seeing giant building projects completed in years; the Panama Canal took 33. French engineers who began the project in 1881 had to stop due to disease, leaving it to the U.S., which completed works in 1914. It takes six to eight hours to traverse the canal today, but that’s a lot less than it takes for ships to navigate Cape Horn en route from America to the rest of the world.

Now almost 15,000 ships trek the 48-mile-long canal each year, an idea first mooted by Spanish traveler Vasco Nunez de Balboa in 1513, at a toll cost of up to $450,000. That’s just as well: over 25,000 people died constructing it. So consumate is the Panama Canal’s command of world shipping that for decades boats – ‘Panamax’ – have been designed to fit snugly inside it. Next April, a $5.25 billion project to double the canal’s capacity, will conclude. Little wonder that many consider the Panama Canal one of the modern world’s seven wonders.

Channel Tunnel

Japan’s Seikan Tunnel may be the world’s largest underground tunnel, but as a feat of engineering – and technology – it doesn’t get much more spectacular than the Channel Tunnel, a 31.4-mile route beneath the English Channel, linking two of Europe’s great powers by rail since 1994.

In fact the first company dedicated to spanning ‘La Manche’ (The Sleeve) sprang up in 1875, when horses were the preferred mode of transport. Today the trip, via Eurostar, takes just 35 minutes, which might be something for David Cameron to reflect on when he considers that the U.K. can be separate from the continent.

Maglev Train

Trains are often a staple of transport tech news: we’ve already mentioned the Hyperloop, while projects like the much-vaunted but little-seen Gulf Railway – set, someday, to link the entire six-state Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region by rail – flit in and out of headlines. So hats off to the Maglev train (derived from magnetic levitation), which, in Japan, just reached a top speed of 374mph, which is just under four times the average speed of an Amtrak train.

Ironically first conceived by American inventor Alfred Zehden in 1905, the system found plenty of suitors in the early part of the 20th century. But no-one took the design to heart quite like Japan, which introduced links in the late 60s. Today Seoul and Beijing have both followed Tokyo’s lines, though their high-cost Maglevs’ efficacies remain a bone of contention among taxpayers.

NASA Advanced Space Transportation System

Ok so this is a bit of a catch-all, as the NASA project actually comprises dozens of technologies whose goal is, according to NASA, “to reduce the cost of getting to space to hundreds of dollars per pound within 25 years and tens of dollars per pound within 40 years.”

The clique of inventions that could push us – all – beyond the stratosphere in our own lifetimes include next-generation launch vehicles; air-breathing rockets; beamed-energy propulsion (basically shooting a laser beam of fuel to the vehicle); and even a Maglev launch assist system.

But Elon Musk – and even Richard Branson – might suggest that public works’ days at defining space travel have ended: Tesla’s next SpaceX launch, the Falcon 9 rocket, will take off next week, while Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin company launched New Shephard last month, sauntering round the world and setting off a new, billionaire-led space race. NASA had better move fast: space travel might not be the preserve of states for much longer.

The Space Elevator

Another concept that has its origins long ago – Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky thought up the idea of an extraterrestrial elevator in 1895, inspired by the Eiffel Tower – the space elevator has moved from a source of sci-fi ridicule to ‘what if’ speculation in recent years.

This year a Canadian company, Thoth Technology (named after the Egyptian god of writing – or a badly-pronounced tooth exam) preferred its own addition to the idea: a 12-mile, inflatable electric elevator that would propel cargo beyond the Earth’s gravitational pull, from whence it could simply sail off into the endless, black vacuum of space – saving millions on launches and (more importantly of course) courting space travel elegantly, and without any of those primitive explosions. “Landing at 12 miles above sea level will make space flight more like taking a passenger jet,” said Thoth President and CEO Caroline Roberts.