No, a feasibility study has not proved the hyperloop would work

If only it was feasible. Image: Virgin Hyperloop One.

The Hyperloop, the futuristic transport concept that tech journalists love and grumpy engineers love to hate, is on a PR offensive.

There are several firms trying to turn Elon Musk’s vision of transporting people through metal tubes at supersonic speeds – in a way that would supposedly displace boring old trains and planes – into hard reality. But the one whose plans are furthest advanced is arguably Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO).

And the great man’s latest baby is currently doing a roadshow around America, wooing state and local governments and trying to persuade them to provide the funding, permits and political backing to build full-sized hyperloop lines all over the country. “I believe we could see a hyperloop in the US in years, not decades,” VHO’s press release quotes Sir Richard as saying.

Branson has form when it comes to ambitious deadlines. In 2004 he promised that Virgin Galactic would be running passenger space flights by 2007; 12 years after that deadline, said space flights have not materialised.

But perhaps this will be different. After all, several potential hyperloop projects are being scoped out. And haven’t we had time now to prove if the thing can really whisk real people around at 1080kph – not quite supersonic, and not as fast as Musk originally imagined, but still pretty damn quick – like VHO says it can?

The answer is no – but what we have learned throws a fascinating spotlight onto how the alliance of breathless PR and clickbait merchants has parlayed hyperloop into something that increasing amounts of public officials (not just in America, but in India too) seem to regard as a genuine transport option today.

VHO trumpets that the Missouri Hyperloop Coalition, a group of public and private bodies, has “released results from the first hyperloop feasibility study in the US which confirmed the viability of a St Louis to Kansas City route”. As far as this reporter can tell, that is the only feasibility study into hyperloop VHO or anyone has carried out to date. (I did ask VHO. It hasn’t responded.)

And VHO is very pleased indeed with that study: it’s been saying that it “represents the first phase of actualisation of a full-scale commercial hyperloop system” and that it “examine[d] the technology, constructability and the economics associated with designing and building a Missouri Hyperloop”. They’re not the only one to be pleased: Black & Veatch won an award for their work, as well as extensive media coverage.

Earlier this year, while writing a piece for Modus magazine, I happened to interview one of the people behind that feasibility study, a director at respected engineering consultancy Black & Veatch, which was commissioned by both VHO and the coalition. Black & Veatch has tremendous experience in designing and developing various kinds of infrastructure projects, but one area the firm’s experience does not extend to, as its director freely admitted, is large-scale transport infrastructure – the sort that requires lots of steel and concrete, like roads and railways do and hyperloop would. Hiring a firm with no track record in relevant projects would be unthinkable for any serious public authority trying to build some major transport infrastructure. The director in question’s area of expertise was data centre projects.


When I sought to confirm that this feasibility study had indeed proved that all the bits of VHO’s proposed hyperloop – magnetic levitation, a vacuum tube, and a passenger-carrying pod – could all work at near-supersonic speeds and pay for itself to boot, I was told that, in fact, “we did not evaluate VHO’s technology; we made an assumption that they can get up to 500-600mph as promised”.

In fact, what the study had essentially established was that VHO could build a hyperloop line from St Louis to Kansas City along a certain route, with certain stations in certain places, that there would be space to do this and that enough passengers would come to cover the cost of the project, which their “high-level” estimate puts at $8-10bn, all assuming  VHO’s proprietary technology worked. Whether that assumption is actually true remained firmly unexamined.

Which brings us to a third problem with this study. Estimating what a road or railway ought to cost is relatively straightforward: so many of them have been built that today’s engineer has a vast database of cost estimates at their fingertips.

But nobody has ever built a fully working hyperloop, which, to make any use of its top speed, would need to be tens if not hundreds of kilometres in length. VHO’s prototype in Nevada is just 500 metres long. Its pod has not reached even half the target top speed – and it has never carried a single passenger. There are therefore no reliable cost estimates for what it would cost to build the roughly 370km Missouri route, let alone a clear idea of how much it would cost to operate.

In fairness, Black & Veatch’s experts freely admit that more work needs to be done to prove that hyperloop is technically, let alone commercially, viable. But they didn’t publicly admit it until I asked them – by which time the inaccurate press releases published on the back of their work had long been turned into news headlines.

VHO is now promising more “feasibility studies” in the states of Texas and Ohio. It remains to be seen whether they’ll prove the feasibility of anything except misleading PR campaigns.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.