Fast, low-cost, climate neutral: How Elon Musk’s Hyperloop idea will revolutionize the transport industry

02. Jun 2021 | Industry + More

Elon Musk builds electric cars, sends rockets into space and wants to relocate Mars. And his high-speed transport system idea known as Hyperloop could revolutionize the transport sector.

Elon Musk didn't just get rich with the sale of PayPal. The 1.5 billion US dollars, which Ebay 2002 handed over for the payment service, also financed many other ideas which Elon Musk was often ridiculed for in the beginning. The GQ magazine wrote about the self-made billionaire: "His plans don't always appear rational or feasible, but often eccentric and over-ambitious." We can wholeheartedly agree with the latter at least. The question of feasibility cannot be answered (yet).

With his successful electric car company Tesla, Musk has certainly already ruffled the feathers of the established automotive industry. Whether humanity will actually settle Mars at some point is in the proverbial stars. But Elon Musk recently achieved an important success with his aerospace company SpaceX, founded in 2002. After four failed test flights, a prototype of "Starship Rocket" was able to successfully land again for the first time after a test flight at the start of May.

Revolutionary idea

Musk's Hyperloop idea may be slightly more down to earth, but is no less ambitious. The entrepreneur described his concept for the first time in a white paper in 2013. The idea: A closed capsule runs at high speed through largely airless tubes. This will make it possible to travel faster and with less environmental impact over long distances than by aeroplane and much more economically than by train.

To do this, a magnetic field is generated in the tubes that draws the trains, which are also known as pods, through an almost airless tunnel with high acceleration. Thanks to contactless suspension and drive systems and low air resistance, these pods will move through the tubes at very high speeds of up to 1,200 kilometres per hour at times. The drive is fully electric.  Since the electrical energy is to be obtained from solar panels mounted on the tubes, Hyperloop could offer largely climate-neutral operation.

Hyperloop development is open to everyone

In his white paper, Elon Musk suggested developing the Hyperloop idea "open source" back in 2013, i.e. in open, barely regulated cooperation, similar to free software: "Another unique thing about Hyperloop is that it is an open development concept, similar to Linux. Feedback from the community that will help to improve the design and to implement the concept in reality is desired."

Since then, various companies and initiatives have been working on implementing the Hyperloop concept. Elon Musk's company SpaceX also organised annual competitions for universities and student initiatives between 2015 and 2019 on a mile-long (approx. 1.6 kilometres) test strip in order to drive the concept forwards and develop prototypes. The team from the Technical University of Munich (TE) took first place every time. In 2019, the pod from the Munich-based participants reached a speed of 463.5 km/h.

The Technical University of Munich is right at the forefront

In November 2020, the Virgin Group, the company of billionaire Richard Branson, reported a further milestone in the Hyperloop development: The first manned Hyperloop test run. After around 400 unmanned journeys on the ten kilometre test tube in Las Vegas, a Hyperloop capsule transported passengers for the first time. It ran slightly slower at 172 km/h to be on the safe side.

The record holders from TUM had to be satisfied with a much shorter test strip. The researchers are working on a 24 metre long test tube and an original scale prototype. Among others, the research programme is led by Prof. Agnes Jocher, head of the Professorship for Sustainability Future Mobility since 2020. "The Hyperloop has the potential to offer a fast, electrical alternative over medium distances and thus enable more sustainable and environmentally-friendly transport," she explained in an interview in 2020. However, further research initiatives are necessary.

Even though the Hyperloop concept has had many critics as well as fans since the beginning: Hyperloop has the potential to revolutionise passenger and freight transport. Fast, cheaper and ideally climate-neutral transport combines quite many, unbeatable benefits. And, in the wise words of an entrepreneur who many people didn't take seriously for a long time: "When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favour." His name: Elon Musk.