Virgin Hyperloop announced that it has been testing an ultra-fast transport system with human passengers for the first time.
The test took place Sunday afternoon at the company’s DevLoop test track in the desert outside Las Vegas, Nevada. The first two passengers were the chief technology officer and co-founder of Virgin Hyperloop, Josh Giegel, and the head of passenger experience, Sara Luchian. After fastening their seats in the company’s sparkling red and white supercar compartment, named the Pegasus, they are moved into an airlock when the air inside the attached vacuum tube is removed. The pod then accelerates to a fast 100 miles per hour (160 km / h) down the length of the track, before slowing to a stop.
It’s a major achievement for Virgin Hyperloop, founded in 2014 on the premise of Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s vision of a futuristic transportation system of magnetic aircraft housings. moving through almost airless tubes at speeds of up to 760 mph (1,223 km / h) an actual.
DevLoop test track is 500 m long and 3.3 m in diameter. The track is about 30 minutes from Las Vegas, in a desert type that one day, hyperloop can pass through in minutes. The company says it performed more than 400 tests on that track, but never before with human passengers – to this day.
“Nobody has done anything close to what we’re talking about right now,” said Jay Walder, CEO of Virgin Hyperloop. The Verge. “This is a full-scale hyperloop that works not only in a vacuum, but there will be one person in it. No one has come close yet to do it.
The Pegasus case used for the first passenger test, also known as the XP-2, was designed with the help of renowned Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. It represents a scaled-down version of what Virgin Hyperloop hopes will ultimately be a full-size compartment capable of carrying up to 23 passengers. It weighs 2.5 tons and is about 15-18 feet long, according to Giegel. Inside, its lush white interior is meant to be familiar to passengers, who might not be immediately comfortable with the idea of firing a slingshot through a vacuum sealed tube at the speed of a commercial jet aircraft.
“This doesn’t sound like some crazy, new sci-fi invention,” Luchian said in an interview a few days before the test. “This is what reminds me of a place I have been to and used many times, that I would feel comfortable taking her in and taking her somewhere to visit.”
Before the test, Luchian said she was eager to experience the acceleration, as well as monitoring the temperature inside the case and the ventilation system. Giegel said he wants to see the system’s safety processes in action and will track if they can maintain contact with operators during testing. “If it’s not safe enough for me, it’s not safe enough for anyone,” he said.
Giegel says the acceleration will feel similar to a plane taking off. The hull is propelled by magnetic flight – the same technology used for high-speed trains. The top speed of the fastest commercial high-speed train, the Shanghai Maglev, travels around 300 miles an hour.
To be sure, the pod doesn’t hit a hyperloop’s theoretical maximum speed of 760 mph. Virgin Hyperloop predicts that with enough track it could eventually hit 670 mph – but the company’s record so far is 240 miles per hour, reached in 2017.
“It will be a bit short,” Giegel said before testing. “We’ll wake up to maybe about 100 miles an hour, a little more, and we’ll accelerate, decelerate, and it’ll be smooth. We’re not astronauts, we’re just there – we’re sitting in it. “
In 2013, Musk published his “alpha paper” on the hypothesis that aerodynamic aluminum capsules filled with passengers or cargo could be pushed through a near-airless tube at the speed of aircraft. up to 760 miles / hour. These tubes, either raised on pylons or submerged underground, can be built in or between cities. He calls it the “fifth mode of transportation” and thinks it can help change the way we live, work, trade and travel. The most eye-catching scenario he recommends is a trip from LA to San Francisco in just 30 minutes. This idea has captured the imagination of engineers and investors around the world.
Virgin Hyperloop was originally founded as Hyperloop Technologies before changing its name to Hyperloop One in 2016 and then again as Virgin Hyperloop One after being acquired by Richard Branson’s company. The company has stepped out of a powerful portal with tens of millions of dollars in funding and a bold vision for hyperloop systems globally.
But Virgin Hyperloop’s journey hasn’t always been smooth. In 2017, the company settled a lawsuit with one of its co-founders over charges of competition harassment and sabotage. Another year later, another co-founder was overthrown on allegations of sexual assault and misconduct.
The company also suffered a cash shortage for a remarkable period of time. Branson helped secure a new $ 50 million investment from two existing investors, helping to meet payroll obligations. More recently, Virgin Hyperloop raised $ 172 million in new funding in 2019, $ 90 million of which came from Dubai port operator DP World, the company that previously invested $ 25 million in company and has two seats on the board of directors of the startup.
After that, things settled down, with Giegel and his team working hard to validate the technology with a series of tests. Legally, things are getting brighter. The company recently announced plans to build a $ 500 million certification hub to boost its vision of the future of high-speed transportation in West Virginia. And the federal government recently laid out the framework to regulate the hyperloop, giving hope to companies like Virgin Hyperloop that they can finally kick off a full-sized operational hyperloop system.
Critics say the hyperloop might be technically feasible, but it’s still just steam software. It’s called the “utopian vision” that would be financially unattainable. It’s one of those technologies that are also “just right” in terms of its boosters – although on the surface it seems still years away. In 2017, Virgin Hyperloop’s top executives told The Verge they expect to see “super loops at work around the world … by 2020” That deadline has then been pushed to 2021, the year they believe the hyperloop will be ready for human passengers. .
Constantine Samaras, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, said there are still many safety questions that need to be answered. “A hyperloop will travel much faster than a high-speed rail, and can even reach speeds of 760 miles per hour,” said Samaras. “Maintaining safety at such high speeds is critical, and all unforeseen disasters need to be designed into the system. An earthquake? The vacuum tube is broken? The train somehow pierced the tube? At such high speeds, these events increase the risk of danger, and so safety is paramount. ”
No government in the world has awarded contracts or approved the construction of hyperloop systems. It is not clear how much it costs to build a hyperloop, but it will certainly go in the billions of dollars. Leaked financial documents in 2016 show that the hyperloop will cost between $ 9 billion and $ 13 billion, or between $ 84 million and $ 121 million per mile – significantly higher than high-speed rail. Even with public funding, any company would need to raise millions of dollars in funding, acquire huge land banks, and certify that hyperloop can be run safely. That’s all to say, the hyperloop is still very far away.
The ability to maintain a vacuum in the tube, especially one of hundreds of miles long, is a huge challenge. Every time it reaches a station, it must slow down and stop. After that, the airlock will be closed, pressurized and reopened. Then the group has to unlock the gas before the next group arrives. The rate at which this happens determines the distance between the groups. Turning around will also be extremely difficult. A hyperloop would take about six miles to make a 90-degree turn at 600 mph, an engineer once told Virgin Hyperloop The New York Times.
Another potential hurdle is progress. The longer the path, the less capacity these pods will have, which could determine how useful a high-volume transport system a hyperloop can perform. Operators could try to compensate by building larger cases, but then they would need stronger steel for their pipes to be able to withstand the added weight, and that leads to cost. higher.
Walder, who runs public transport systems in China and the US and most recently the head of the Citi Bike in New York City, said that the highways will be “separated by a few seconds” in one go. Comprehensive hyperloop scale, commercial operations, compared with 2 minutes or more for most trains.
Luchian said she was excited, if a bit nervous. “A little nervous energy,” she said, “just because I can appreciate the charm of the moment.”
She said it was important for the ride to be comfortable and familiar, just like riding a train, that other ordinary people would deny it a safe and viable mode of travel. She noted that neither Giegel nor herself had received any prior training or wore protective clothing like astronauts.
“Even on such an important occasion, for a technology that is truly a pipe dream like six or seven years ago, we don’t need to do all these iterations with experts, “She said. “We’re coming in now.”
For Giegel, this experiment was the culmination of many years of labor. It comes almost six years after he quit his job leading propulsion systems at Virgin Galactic to form a hyperloop company in his garage.
“I think for a long time from now, this moment, this thing in the desert won’t exist unless we put it here, it will be where people can look and say, ‘that’s a real idea. Big, it was a really risky idea, “he said,” “but they came, they did and they succeeded.”