Next-Gen Transportation Projects Present Execution And Planning Hurdles
There's a lot of hype for hyperloop. In 2013, entrepreneur Elon Musk proposed “hyperloops,” jump-starting interest in proving the concept: vacuum- and magnetic levitation-powered pods moving at near-supersonic speeds through tubes. Last November, Mr. Musk's Boring Company received a preliminary permit to start digging a hyperloop tunnel beneath Washington, D.C., USA that he hopes to connect to New York, New York. Other bold projects are on the drawing board in the United States, Europe and Asia. In the U.S., Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has proposed connecting Cleveland, Ohio with Chicago, Illinois. Another startup—Virgin Hyperloop One, backed by Sir Richard Branson—has a deal with the United Arab Emirates for a project linking Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
As governments begin to study the feasibility of proposed projects, serious hurdles likely will emerge, says transportation planning and engineering consultant and former city of New York traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz, New York, New York, USA. “Physics and finances are proving to be formidable foes.”
—Sam Schwartz, New York, New York, USA
Here are the three major hurdles that could impede hyperloop projects.
1. High Pressure
Any hyperloop project team must meet a central technological requirement: keep the pressure in tubes sufficiently low over long distances to allow speeds above 700 miles (1,127 kilometers) per hour.
Arrivo lowers the hurdle by slowing down transit speeds. The organization has launched a project to build a test system in Denver, Colorado, USA that will go “only” 200 miles (322 kilometers) per hour—less than one-third as fast as competitors but still plenty fast for commuters traveling less than 60 miles (97 kilometers) each way. “The hyperloop is something absolutely novel—it's worth being excited about,” Brookings Institution fellow and urban infrastructure expert Adie Tomer told Wired. “But that excitement should be tempered with the realities that this is not tangible technology at this point.”
—Adie Tomer, Brookings Institution, to Wired
Virgin Hyperloop One's test site in Nevada, USA
2. Huge Price
Sponsors aren't hiding sky-high project price tags. The cost of constructing 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) of a hyperloop system—currently pegged at US$121 million—would need to be reduced by many factors for a project's business case to make sense.
Mr. Schwartz says that organizations may be able to slash project costs significantly within several years by improving existing tunnel boring technology. Mr. Musk has said The Boring Company will increase boring machines' power output by scaling their cooling systems, as well as increase their efficiency by fully automating them and removing the need for human operators. “Cities around the world are suffering as construction costs become astronomical,” Mr. Schwartz says. “I welcome any technological advance that Elon Musk or anyone else can come up with.”
3. New Rules
Any transportation infrastructure projects spanning multiple government jurisdictions—as most proposed hyperloop systems would—have to get over many regulatory hurdles. Project plans built around proven technology have a hard enough time moving forward; the states of New York and New Jersey have struggled for 20 years to come to terms on a traditional tunnel under the Hudson River that many agree is desperately needed.
The Boring Company's proposed D.C.-New York corridor would cross six states and three rivers—obtaining environmental approvals and land rights in such a complicated governance landscape would be a tall order. Mr. Musk seems to hope that public interest can make a difference: “I hope people do take the time to let their elected officials know that they want this to happen,” he tweeted.
Citizen enthusiasm can't change the fact that the U.S. Department of Transportation requires congressional approval before it could even begin regulating hyperloops. Anthony Foxx, a former U.S. secretary of transportation, told Recode last year that regulatory “rule-makings can take something like four or five years on the normal course.” A new rulebook is needed for hyperloop, he said: “[C]urrent regulations would be like putting a square peg in a round hole.”
Big questions about safety still need to be answered, Philippa Oldham of the Advanced Propulsion Centre UK told The Guardian in October. “We really need to know a lot more about the safety features and what would happen if something went wrong.” —Kate Rockwood