The last new form of transportation, the airplane, was invented 115 years ago. But a contender for the 21st century's biggest travel breakthrough, the Hyperloop, just took a step closer to becoming a reality in the United States.
Virgin Hyperloop One, which already has a working demo in Nevada and claims it will have the first passenger-bearing loop built by the mid-2020s, said on Wednesday that the first feasibility study has been completed, confirming that the concept is viable in the case of "Heartland Hyperloop" in Missouri.
Missouri, in particular, is a promising location for one surface reason: The proposed route is flat and straight.
The Missouri route runs along Interstate 70 from Kansas City to St. Louis with a stop in Columbia, Missouri, along the way. The proposed route would allow some 5 million residents of Kansas City and St. Louis to travel the roughly 250 miles across the state to the other cities in 30 minutes. Columbia, where the University of Missouri is located, could reach the two major cities in 15 minutes.
The initial cost estimate for building the I-70 hyperloop route is $30 million to $40 million per mile of track. With a route of approximately 250 miles, that equals a total price tag of $7 billion to $10 billion, though both the price per mile and total length of the route could be later adjusted. It is also important to note these costs do not include the Hyperloop technology itself, the portals, cybersecurity and external security measures that would be needed for the project.
Dozens of possible routes were proposed across the United States, including connections between Los Angeles and San Francisco; New York City and Washington, D.C.; Denver and Houston. Further feasibility studies will likely be released within the next year for states like Colorado, Ohio and Texas, said a Hyperloop One employee, but Missouri has the distinction of the first.
The feasibility study, completed by international engineering firm Black & Veatch, says that several factors make Missouri especially attractive as a candidate for the country's first hyperloop. The proposed route runs on government-owned land that is flat and straight; those petitioning for the hyperloop include business and government leaders, as well as academics; and it would provide a huge economic boost to the state by connecting its two largest population centers. Missouri is also centrally located and within reach of many of the country's highways and manufacturing plants, the report said.
How the hyperloop works
People don't know very much about hyperloops, and what they do know — usually that it has something to do with magnets and was maybe invented by Elon Musk — sounds an awful lot like science fiction. But slowly the new form of transportation is moving from concept to actual test cases as companies like Virgin Hyperloop One explore the possibility of loops in the United States and around the rest of the world.
Its potential seems world-changing. You could work in one city and live 500 miles away, or you could leave your home in the Midwest for a day trip to a beach on the Pacific. Fresh fish or organic produce could travel from the farm or docks across the country to your dinner plate more cheaply and quickly, property values could be driven up as more land outside of urban areas could be developed and an unprecedented level of connectivity around the country could allow for explosive economic development.
Travelers would go to what's called a portal, which will likely be first in transit hubs of major cities before spreading outward to smaller ones. There, they will enter a large tube and board a pod inside of it with 15 to 30 others. The tubes can be built on elevated pylons, underground, through the ocean or at ground-level, and the pod will be roughly the size of a subway car; the tube would be the diameter of a subway tunnel. The door will close behind them, along with the entrance to the tunnel.
The air from the tube will be pulled out so the environment is as close to a vacuum as possible. Airline pilots soar at 30,000 feet in part because it allows them to conserve fuel with low air resistance, and the hyperloop can do that inside the tube. Instead of moving on wheels like a train, the hyperloop will levitate magnetically, allowing it to avoid more resistance. The pod will be accelerated by using electric power and piloted by a computer, zooming forth like a gigantic, passenger-bearing air hockey puck. As it accelerates, floating in the near-airless tube, the pod will be able to coast long distances without losing momentum — like a bike downhill — and the computer will generate bursts of power as needed to maintain extremely high speed.
The pod takes elements from air and space travel, the tube from rail and civil infrastructure, and the levitation is unique, said Hyperloop One Engineer Kristen Hammer, creating a completely new way to travel.
Pods can reach speeds up to 700 miles per hour and in theory is inherently safer than other forms of transportation, because it's inside the sealed tube and has the computer pilot, removing potential for user error or most external factors. It will run on electricity and can be integrated with the power grid and other forms of renewable energy, like solar or wind. It will be able to carry people and freight, and there's the potential to build a network like the interstate highway system so that people can move around the country at the speed of a jet plane with the ease of a bus.
Reasons for skepticism
Don't expect to see Hyperloop One breaking ground in Missouri tomorrow.
"I think the U.S. will be one of the last places where you'll see this," said Rick Geddes, director of the Cornell Infrastructure Policy program.
The biggest obstacles facing hyperloop aren't the technical ones, he said, but instead policy ones. It will be difficult to get different levels of government to cooperate, to navigate complicated regulatory systems and to maintain excitement and engagement from stakeholders throughout, Geddes said. For those reasons, he said, it's likely that the first hyperloops will be in countries like India, China or the Middle East, where there's less regulatory and other hoops to jump through.
It's also important to remember that huge infrastructure projects are extremely complex, and are plagued by unseen, uncontrollable variables; ballooning costs and a so-called "optimism bias" that makes problems worse, said David Pring-Mill, the communications director of the Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership, or HARP, a group dedicated to research and information sharing about the effects of building hyperloops.
"We haven't even really begun to think of all the ways this can change our economy, our society and the way we conduct business."
But if and when hyperloop does come to the United States, the benefits could be enormous.
The Missouri feasibility study projects that the cost of tickets would be cheaper than the price of gas to drive the route, and that building costs would be 40 percent lower than a high-speed rail project. They project that it wouldn't just service people already making the trip, but that it could increase by up to 80 percent so that as many as 51,000 people do the loop daily. Finally, they project that the Missouri hyperloop would generate more than $500 million in annual benefits through the combined travel time savings and accident reductions.
"We haven't even really begun to think of all the ways this can change our economy, our society and the way we conduct business," said Ryan Weber, president of the Kansas City Tech Council, a group dedicated to promoting technological growth in the city.
People would be able to live in either city and work in the other, said Andrew Smith, vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation of the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce. He commutes more than 30 minutes to get to downtown St. Louis from his suburban home, and the hyperloop would allow travel across the state in that time. This knits the cities on the route together in such a way that they'd be able to compete with much larger cities like Austin, Denver or Nashville for jobs, talent and company relocations, he said.
Hyperloop One built a working demo in Nevada, and they say the first passenger-bearing loop will built by the mid-2020s. It has signed an intent-to-build agreement in India, where the company says a finished loop will be constructed by the mid-2020.
The completion of the feasibility study for the "Heartland Hyperloop" in Missouri was the first such milestone in the United States. However, a potential headache for the company was revealed this week when the Financial Times reported that Saudi Arabia may pull out of billion-dollar investment deals with Richard Branson-affiliated companies and potentially suspend its work on a hyperloop feasibility study for the Middle East, though CNBC sources denied the hyperloop project was in danger of being scrapped. Branson, a minority investor in Virgin Hyperloop One and its board chairman, was one of the first business people to suspend business ties with Saudi Arabia — and HyperLoop One executives pulled out of the upcoming Saudi Future Investment Initiative conference — after the furor over the disappearance and assumed death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
"It's modern. It's the future. It puts you on the map," said Chris Zahas, an urban planner and real estate strategist who is on the board of the HARP. "If you're a city that has it or you're an earlier adopter of it, in some ways it's instant credibility that you're a forward-looking, modern city."
Uneven distribution of loop benefits
Interstate 70, the home of the proposed route, was the first interstate highway in the United States, and experts said they, too, hope the hyperloop becomes a national network. But much like the interstate highway system, the benefits of hyperloop could be distributed unevenly if care isn't taken.
Historically, we've seen that new transportation had the potential to divide people into the haves and the have-nots, Pring-Mill said. When the U.S. highway system was built, many poor or African-American communities were left behind or were even bulldozed to make the roads, he said, while in China only the rich can afford the high-speed rail system.
"It's a double-edged sword," Zahas said. "Would it potentially create winners and losers, and how do you mitigate for those negative impacts? So much of the hyperloop world has been focused on the technology itself, the speed and propulsion and whatnot, but there hasn't been enough focus on the economic impacts and so-forth."
For instance, cities with a hyperloop will benefit because businesses will suddenly have access to a much wider labor pool, Zahas said. And property prices will almost certainly go up near hyperloops because of an urban planning principle known as transit-oriented development.
But growth could come at the expense of rural areas, as businesses move away and into cities. Citizens of hollowed out, rural areas could be forced to watch hyperloop tubes cut through their towns without stopping, carrying flourishing urbanites between their cities.
Or it could go another way.
The technology could offer economic benefits to rural areas that move their produce through larger urban areas, such as St. Louis, which Smith said would happen with the Missouri route, and rural citizens within reach of a high-speed transportation network could be helped much the same way city folk would. More advanced transportation infrastructure could also drive up property values for everyone, Pring-Mill said, providing an appreciable asset for middle-Americans secular from the stock market.
The availability of hyperloop could be similar to the path that availability to a different kind of advanced tech took: flat-screen TVs, Geddes said.
At first, it may be prohibitively expensive or only available in specialized, privileged areas, but as time passes it will be improved upon and become much more accessible. Once upon a time, he said, having a flat screen TV was considered only for rich people, or before that a cell phone, or before that, a car instead of a horse.
In short, experts said, hyperloop could create a rising tide that lifts all boats if it's available to everyone.
"It's been over 100 years since humanity has had a fundamentally new mode of transportation, so it's exciting to be at this time," Geddes said, but he added, "I'm urging us to learn from the past 100 years and think early about providing universal service."
— By Edward McKinley, special to CNBC.com