Hyperloop: a sustainable solution for the future of freight

Image credit: Cargo sous terrain. Source: Swissnex San Francisco.

Once upon a time, in a cyberpunk universe not so far away, several start-ups began working on a new idea. The mission was to imagine the future of passenger and cargo transport, while tackling the problems of carbon emissions, traffic and logistics. And one man created the magic word: hyperloop. That man was Elon Musk.

First proposed in 2013 by Tesla and SpaceX as an open-source project free for anyone to develop, hyperloop is a theoretical transportation system that combines a near-vacuum effect with ultra-fast speeds. The name is slightly confusing as it is no longer the loop that Musk originally imagined and its top speeds will be near-supersonic rather than hypersonic.

The magnetically-levitated, electrically-propelled pods will be able to transport passengers or freight through steel tubes at close to airline speeds of up to 1,223 kilometres per hour. One of the arguments for hyperloop is its interoperability from cargo to passengers, as it has the potential to go into city centres (and not just staying n the outskirts), and to combine with other forms of local transportation. As e-commerce and same-day deliveries grow, so will also the freight transport. Air freight is set to double over the next 20 years, leading to a further increase of greenhouse gas emissions. Hyperloop could change these figures.

Just a week ago, one of the top companies in the race for the development of the technology, Virgin Hyperloop One, released a new video, showcasing its passenger experience, hoping to obtain safety certification by 2025 and beginning operations in 2030.

Coinciding with the new showcase, Swissnex San Francisco organised a discussion last week on hyperloop and the future of freight, providing an opportunity for us to reflect on the potential of this technology.

Why this is important. Whether the hyperloop-related technologies are developed in Switzerland, the United Kingdom or the United States, there is a common goal to all contributions: sustainability. The Covid crisis might have partly overshadowed the problem, but the carbon emissions are still alarmingly high, having picked up in the second half of 2020, despite drops early in the pandemic.

Hyperloop’s sustainable technology can become part of the value chain, alongside drones, electric and hydrogen solutions, the Swissnex panellists said. An additional value is that the hyperloop identified projects are not dependent on battery technology and can save this environmental footprint, among other things.

In other words, transportation through low-pressure tubes using levitated capsules propelled by electromagnetic propulsion has the potential to reduce energy consumption and CO2 emissions while increasing travel speeds. Transport emissions accounted for over 24 per cent of global CO2 emissions in 2016 and are rising faster than in other sectors, according to the 2020 BAK Economics report.

To face the challenge ahead, companies in Switzerland and beyond are looking to solve the safety questions, the high tunnelling costs, but also the infrastructure solutions, as Stefan Goldlücke, programme lead on smart city and intercity logistics at the Swiss-based firm, Cargo Sous Terrain, explains:

“Getting into the city is very difficult with an infrastructure that is adding more to the environment. The key is combining the different modes, using the resources that already exist in an eco-friendly combination to prevent making the environmental situation even worse.”

Different countries, different projects. Each country has its own hyperloop venture. Leading firms, after Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop, include HyperloopTT in the US, Canadian-French firm Transpod, and Spain’s Zeleros. Valais-based start-up Swisspod is also working on a capsule prototype to carry passengers between Zurich and Geneva in 17 minutes. The question is, should there be a single standard solution applicable everywhere or are tailor-made solutions key, even though they might not be able to connect to each other?

One challenge is the absence of a regulatory framework, or a common interface, making it difficult to implement a safety case, Dr. Anita Sengupta, founder and CEO of California-based Hydroplane explains:

“There's advantages to having similarities in the interface because you can claim heritage from different technologies or different test tracks for the system that you're trying to operate. Of course, when you apply that kind of engineering constraint, you can end up with a non optimised system and something like a CubeSat with an unnecessary form factor just because everybody else is using it. But perhaps an in-between solution is to think about a way to develop a common engineering understanding so that you can benefit from the steps that individual companies go through to develop technologies and certify them for eventual approval from a regulatory perspective.”

One example that supports that perspective is the success of the shipping containers industry, a model that is applicable worldwide. And the shipments are precisely what can determine the developments, as there is a need to be able to deliver to a consumer or an individual store. However, the longer the distance, the larger the aggregation, Goldlücke adds:

“It is very hard to overcome the principle of aggregation, if you want to keep the prices at an acceptable level.”

A new industry in the making. According to Gregory Inauen, vice president of the Swiss EuroTube Foundation, there could be even more projects, as the impact goes beyond the technology itself.

“It is great to see that so many people are working on such a hard and important problem, that we are given different shots, and that we are using different approaches to solve problems. But I really see it also as an entire new industry that's in the making. So basically, if we consider where the electric car industry was in the 90s, early 2000s, and where it is now, where you have different suppliers, car manufacturers, different kinds of types of vehicles, policies with the entire transportation sector, it is tremendously important that we coordinate. I think having so many solutions will hopefully help most of them to stick and be implemented.”

Interoperability and standards are important, but so is another challenge that hyperloop is tackling: how goods and passengers can be transported in a sustainable manner in the near future.

But before operating the first systems, the proof of concept must be tested and risk assessments carried out. Virgin Hyperloop One conducted the first successful passenger journey. After that, it is just about finding space and funding to start building the infrastructure. Will the public follow and live this futuristic dream? Let us wait, test and see.