Saturday, July 18, 2015

3 Questions for the Hyperloop (MSx Fellows Future Forum)

Imagine a world where Bagdad and Chang’An are the two biggest container trading ports. Carbon emissions have dropped by half, and Amazon provides 2-day delivery worldwide.

The Hyperloop is a brainchild of Elon Musk, but being executed by venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar because Elon is too busy with Tesla and SpaceX. The Future Forum is an annual forum bringing together thought leaders shaping the world, organized by the MSx Fellows at Stanford. The MSx Fellows are rising executive-track leaders from a wide range of industries and countries, doing a full-time compressed management course at Stanford. After attending the forum, I am convinced that the Hyperloop could reshape the world for the average person far more than either Tesla or SpaceX.

The Hyperloop promises ground transportation near the speed of sound. Just think about that for a moment.

A Hyperloop Pod (source: hyperlooptech.com)

From the forum, I picked up a few interesting nuggets about this project. Firstly, it was an idea shared by Elon with Sherwin on the way to Cuba, of all places. Elon was frustrated that the high-speed rail project that California was planning would only be completed after he reached Mars, and he thought he had a better idea. The Hyperloop shoots capsules like bullets through vacuum tubes near the speed of sound – LA to SF in half an hour. Its primary purpose will be transporting cargo, which will also subsidise the travel of commuters. They will start with LA-SF, then the world. In particular, they could become a very viable substitute for freight vessels. The 15 biggest freight ships create more pollution than all the cars in the world, whereas the Hyperloop will be green and sustainable.

The panel, moderated by MSx Fellow Danielle Wyss (source: Stanford GSB)

What will life be like if we could commute at the speed of planes, for the cost of trains? As I left the forum, I spent the next few days mulling the possibilities. (Then I spent the next weeks taking exams, packing up my life, graduating, and leaving Stanford, and I am now writing this from a boat off the Alaskan coast, my first opportunity to breathe.)

The Hyperloop team talked a lot about the new technologies and the challenges of physics that they are overcoming to make this a reality. There are some other questions I would love to ask them.

The Hyperloop could redraw the face of human geography. Our civilization today is clustered around coastal cities. Our ancestors wanted to be close to sources of water and food, today it is because 90% of the world’s goods travel by container ship. But what if there was a cheaper, faster, greener way to move goods around the earth overland as well as underwater? We would see a Hyperloop backbone highway spread out across continents, like a return to the days of the old Silk Road. The new important cities of the world would be the ones hosting Hyperloop terminals, which the current world capitals may be too densely built up to entertain. Some, like my home of Singapore (busiest container port and best airport for decades), might have no role to play in a Hyperloop world. This in turn poses a political challenge for the Hyperloop. Will they be able to bring governments on board to overcome numerous regulatory hurdles, if it promises to stir up the balance of power among the governments themselves?


"SeidenstrasseGMT" by Kelvin Case - File:Seidenstrasse_GMT.jpg revision.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SeidenstrasseGMT.JPG#/media/File:SeidenstrasseGMT.JPG
The Silk Road (Source: Wikipedia)

The Hyperloop could replace the transport routes of the world. As I first imagined the Hyperloop stretching across Central Asia, my next thought was how to keep it intact through some of the most volatile regions of the world. They assured us it can survive an earthquake, but can its vacuum tube take a direct hit from an IED, or a shoulder-launched rocket? Even within America, what happens if someone drives a home-made truck bomb into it? Will a small hole in the tube wall blow out an entire section of the network? In times of war, can it be relied on, or will nations have to return to road, rail and waterways? Whether the Hyperloop can truly supplant other modes of transport will depend on how well it can answer this security question. If it cannot be made sufficiently secure, it may never become more than a fascination along niche express routes.

The Hyperloop brings space-age technology to terrestrial transport. And it is no wonder that some of their lead engineers came from Space X. But in some ways, travelling through space is actually much simpler than travelling on earth. Space is space is space, the physics are extremely difficult, but simple at the same time. Earth is chaotic, let's just take the LA-SF route as an example. For underground routing, your main man-made obstacles would be water, gas, and sewage pipelines near urban regions. Generally electricity is kept above ground. There will also be some buried oil pipelines in places near oil infrastructure such as in the San Joaquin Valley region around Bakersfield, which is en route between SF and LA for the land-based option. Offshore the major risks are sea-floor slumps, and general seabed instability, causing Avalanche effects. There are also challenges associated with spanning seabed canyons while maintaining rigidity of the Hyperloop conduit against underwater currents. Traversing a sequence of operating oil pipelines running perpendicular to the Southern California coastline in the Santa Barbara region will be challenging, since these extend to water depths of up to 400 meters and hence cannot be conveniently skirted. These are just some of the geological questions my classmate Mark Allen raised in conversation, from his own experience as an engineer in the energy industry. How will the Hyperloop overcome all these obstacles to plan direct and simple routes?

Underground Pipelines (source: sunrisefl.gov)

Of all the technologies I learned about during my time at Stanford, the Hyperloop is one that I will be watching very keenly. It could truly change the world we live in, but to do so it has to overcome many obstacles beyond the physics of speed-of-sound travel. I wish them luck!