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Hyperloop One Prototype Tested: Commuter Evolution Or Impractical Money Pit

Hyperloop One (formerly Hyperloop Technologies) tested a prototype propulsion system in the Nevada desert near Las Vegas. The sled accelerated to 100 mph in one second. Time reported the prototype as the first in a race to create an ultra-fast commuter transportation system. The vision is to have a rail or tube system capable of speeds approaching 700 mph. The proponents believe it will evolve the human commute by bridging distances that now take too long to travel to be considered reasonable for a commute. However, the project faces many steep hurdles that may make the whole thing an impractical waste of money.

The Hyperloop sitting on the test track

Hyperloop One is just one company working on developing this high-speed transport system. Their principal competitor is another company called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT). The Hyperloop was dreamed up by the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, Elon Musk. His original vision was to have a system similar to the pneumatic tube systems used to convey small items very quickly, such as those seen in drive-through banking. Other than throwing his idea out to the public, Musk has not contributed to any of the current projects.

However, Time points out that the billionaire “is not known for his hands-off approach. Should one Hyperloop company begin to emerge as a strong leader, it’s likely that Musk will emerge from the shadows to give a final push.”

Despite Hyperloop One not receiving backing from Musk, they have already raised $11.1 million in 2015 and have announced another $80 million in funding this year. Obviously, there is enough interest in the proposed technology that financial backing is of little concern at this time. After all, if the company is successful, it could mean billions of dollars in returns to original investors. As long as continual progress is made, the project will see no end to the venture capital.

Aside from Hyperloop One’s initial development milestone in Nevada, Time stated that it “has previously promised a full-scale ‘Kitty Hawk’ demonstration by the end of this year.”

If either of the companies working on the technology are able to bring Musk’s vision to reality, it would indeed usher in an evolution in commuter travel. One proponent states that a commute from San Francisco to Los Angeles would only take 30 minutes instead of six hours. With proper planning and line placement, wealth could be brought to areas that are financially struggling, but this might be putting the cart before the horse.

Sand was used to bring the Hyperloop to a stop at the end of it's one-mile test run

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For Hyper One or HTT to be successful, the are many obstacles they must navigate. Time mentioned only a couple of these issues.

“Regulatory hurdles will be an issue, as will cost. Early estimates suggested that San Francisco to L.A. route might require $6 billion to build. Some observers regard that figure as highly optimistic.”

This price tag is far too small to be even considered realistic. A Hyperloop system would face many of the problems and costs that the current High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program in California faces, making it a useful model for comparison.

The HSIPR program looks to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles with a 220 mph bullet train. The project is expected to cost $68 billion, according to Business Insider. That figure is more than 10 times Hyperloop One’s estimated cost. Governing states that many, including California Congressman Jeff Denham, think HSIPR is not economically feasible and are questioning proposals for federal funding. Despite the representative’s and the people’s concerns, work has already begun on the project.

Hyperloop One also faces another major consideration regarding line route. For the Hyperloop to operate at 700 mph, it will need a virtually uninterrupted and straight line to its destination. According to the Fresno Bee, HSIPR has faced the same obstacle. Pre-construction efforts have laid eminent domain claims to thousands of businesses and residences in the Central Valley area of California, where a “feeder line” is routed from Madera to San Fransisco. Even though construction is pushing through with the legal seizure of properties, the line has had to divert around national habitat refuges to the extent that it cannot operate safely at 220 mph, and this is only for a small section of the proposed line between Madera and Fresno.

If a Hyperloop One system is to run at 700 mph, there is no room for even gentle turns in the line. Even with banking the G-forces exerted on passengers would be uncomfortable at best, if not nauseating or even dangerous. How many properties would a Hyperloop line have to claim to create a straight path from San Fransisco to L.A.? Some are already complaining that the HSIPR is causing more economic damage to the communities that it goes through than the positive economic impact it is expected to bring.

Hyperloop One’s practicality has to be questioned as well. Both Los Angeles and San Francisco are relatively large cities geographically speaking. Commuters to either location will be faced with the problem and expense of local transportation to get around. Public transportation systems exist in both municipalities, which can help mitigate some of the cost, but for a $60 billion project to be economically viable, ticket prices for the line are going to have to be high enough that investors see an ROI within their lifetime. Therefore, the cost of riding the HSIPR or a Hyperloop is likely going to have to be greater than what a passenger is willing to pay unless it is subsidized by the government.

Hyperloop One’s goals are ambitious, to say the least. They promise to bring us the first “commercially successful” Hyperloop transportation system.

However, as Time points out, “Transportation history is littered with concepts that, while technologically impressive, failed because they didn’t make money. (Hello, Concorde.)”

In the meantime, Hyperloop One and HTT will continue with their research and development for the next evolution in commuting.

[Photo by David Becker/Getty Images]