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.