The “Hyperloop”, which is faster than an airplane, completes its first manned test. Is it an innovation or a scam?

The speed is faster than that of a civil airliner. It takes only one hour to travel from Beijing to Shanghai. When this kind of transportation becomes a reality, it will undoubtedly be an important breakthrough in the history of human transportation. It is exciting to think about it.

This is the "super high-speed rail" concept proposed by Musk in 2013, which uses vacuum pipes and magnetic levitation technology to achieve transportation at a speed of thousands of kilometers per hour. It was once considered the development direction of future transportation methods.

An American company called Hyperloop One (now renamed Virgin Hyperloop) started trying to make this project a reality in 2016. Just a few days ago, Virgin Hyperloop's "Hyperloop" announced the completion of its first manned test .

This seems to mean that the ground vehicle, which is faster than the plane, is closer to us, but the "super high-speed rail" has been questioned since its inception.

In addition to Hyperloop One, there are several companies to promote similar projects. The "super high-speed rail" developed by China Aerospace Science and Industry, the ultimate goal is to achieve a supersonic "flying near the ground" at 4,000 km/h.

However, no "super high-speed rail" project has reached a level close to commercial use. Is this disruptive transportation tool an innovation or a scam?

"Hyperloop" completed its first manned test, and there are still many problems to be solved

Last week in the desert of Las Vegas, USA, Virgin Hyperloop’s "Hyperloop" conducted its first manned test. The two passengers who took the first ride were Josh Giegel, Chief Technology Officer of Virgin Hyperloop, and Sara Luchian, Passenger Experience Director. .

The capsule in this test is the Pegasus Pod designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. It can carry two passengers and is equipped with five-point seat belts commonly used in racing cars. Virgin Hyperloop hopes that the final capsule can accommodate 23 passengers.

The test was carried out in a pipeline with a diameter of 3.3 meters and a length of 500 meters. It took 15 seconds to reach the end point during the actual test of the capsule, which was equivalent to a speed of 172 km/h.

This speed is not as good as the high-speed rail, and it is farther away from the Virgin Hyperloop's envisaged speed of more than 1,000 kilometers per hour. It is said that this is because of the safety of passengers and the comfort of the ride. On the other hand, the 500-meter tunnel is not enough. To fully accelerate.

Nevertheless, Virgin Hyperloop still considers this to be an important milestone for the "Hyperloop", calling it "a moon-landing achievement." CEO Jay Walder said :

This is a complete and working "super high-speed rail" that puts people in a vacuum for transportation. No other organization can do it yet.

As for the experience of riding, Josh Giegel said that the feeling of acceleration is similar to that of an airplane taking off, while Sara Luchian said that “there is no feeling of riding a roller coaster at all,” and you will not feel uncomfortable even if you accelerate quickly.

In fact, Virgin Hyperloop has conducted more than 400 unmanned tests in this pipeline. The highest speed record to date is 386 km/h in the 2017 test.

If a faster manned test is carried out, a longer vacuum pipeline must be built. Virgin Hyperloop estimates that to accelerate to the envisaged 700 mph (1126 km/h), at least 2 kilometers of orbit are needed.

So not long ago Virgin Hyperloop announced that it would spend $500 million to build a test site in West Virginia . At the same time, it said that it will strive to obtain safety certification for the "Super High Speed ​​Rail" in 2025 and put it into commercial operation in 2030.

As early as 2016, Virgin Hyperloop and the Dubai Roads and Transportation Authority reached a cooperation plan to build a super high-speed rail linking Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which can shorten the journey from more than one hour to 12 minutes.

At the beginning of this year, Virgin Hyperloop also announced plans for 11 super high-speed rail lines that may be constructed in the future. Los Angeles and San Francisco, which are 600 kilometers apart, may only take 35 minutes to commute in the future.

The ideals are full and can be returned to reality. The blueprints of Virgin Hyperloop seem to be a bit too optimistic, because the feasibility of the "super high-speed rail" has not yet been fully verified.

Is it an innovation or a scam?

In a "Hyperloop Alpha" Musk White Paper published in 2013, the first time disclosed this to pipeline-based supersonic transport sub-system, and pointed out that "super high-speed rail" will become Following the planes, trains, automobiles, ships "The Fifth Mode of Transportation" .

As a result, the construction trend of the "super high-speed rail" project has started. There are currently at least six super high-speed rail companies, but Musk has not participated in them, and currently none of them are commercially available.

Of course, it cannot be said that the "super high-speed rail" is not feasible. After all, SpaceX's Starlink plan has recently started a public beta after a lot of doubts and several delays.

For a transportation, the most basic requirements are safety, reliability, comfort, and economy . Let’s take a look at these dimensions to see if the "super high-speed rail" is feasible, even if it is only theoretical.

Regarding the safety of the " Hyperloop", Constantine Samaras, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, believes that there are still many problems to be solved. In the high-speed operation of thousands of kilometers per hour, all the dangers caused by failures and accidents will also magnified.

James Powell, a physicist and co-sponsor of the superconducting magnetic levitation concept, once said that even minor errors in the orbit could cause serious disasters.

The entire system is very fragile, and even a single point of failure may cause disaster. For example, someone punches the pipe wall, or the pipe is slightly displaced by an earthquake, which may cause the passenger compartment to collapse.

However, the current Virgin Hyperloop did not disclose too many details on the safety facilities of the Hyperloop.

In fact, pipeline transportation has appeared in the 19th century, but it is used for small cargo transportation. However, a large amount of heat is generated during the compression of air, and more improvements are needed if it is used to transport people. Wang Mengshu , an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering , has also pointed out that pumping the tunnel into a vacuum poses a big safety hazard for passengers.

Therefore, it takes a lot of time to verify the safety of this kind of brand new transportation. Adie Tomer, an infrastructure expert at Brookings University, believes that the "hyperloop" safety test may be 10-20 years longer than the pharmaceutical industry.

In terms of technical reliability, industry experts generally believe that the "super high-speed rail" faces two major problems : ensuring the dynamic stability and linear drive efficiency of the maglev system under high-speed motion .

The reason why the super high-speed rail can achieve "subsonic speed" is because the air resistance is greatly reduced in a vacuum environment, but it also brings new technical problems.

According to Yang Ying, the chief expert of CRRC , the turning radius of the high-speed rail is about 7 kilometers, but if the speed reaches thousands of kilometers per hour, the turning radius will need tens of kilometers, so the super high-speed rail can almost only travel on straight tracks. It will also greatly increase the difficulty of route planning and laying.

▲The test tracks of the Super High Speed ​​Rail currently seen seem to be straight.

Of course, you can also choose to slow down when turning, which will lose the original speed advantage of the super high-speed rail. At the same time, passengers may experience greater lateral acceleration during a turn than when the plane takes off, and therefore feel discomfort.

As for another key technology used in the super high-speed rail-magnetic levitation technology, it has been put into use in the high-speed rails of many countries such as China and Japan, and the fastest experimental speed is about 600 km/h.

▲ Japan's maglev train has a top speed of 603 km/h.

But this is only the experimental speed, and the actual operation has not reached it. Japan's 505 kilometers per hour superconducting maglev trunk line will not open until 2027.

As for the maglev technology that needs to operate at speeds above 1,000 kilometers per hour, there is currently no commercially available mature technology in the world, and there is even no experimental data. It can be seen that Virgin Hyperloop wants to be put on the market within ten years is basically unrealistic.

Even if all technical problems are resolved, construction costs may be a greater challenge.

A document exposed by Virgin Hyperloop in 2016 shows that the construction cost per mile of the hyperloop is between US$84 million and US$121 million, which is much higher than that of the high-speed rail.

In the past two years, Virgin Hyperloop also published a feasibility report, stating that the Missouri Hyperloop in the United States can save US$410 million per year, but it is very secretive about construction costs.

In addition, the capacity of the Virgin Hyperloop "capsule cabin" is much lower than that of the high-speed rail. If you want to cover the cost, you may need a very high fare, which is also an important reason for the failure of the supersonic airliner that year.

You might say that the Hyperloop can reduce costs with a more intensive departure frequency. However, every time you get on and off a super high-speed train, you must perform atmospheric evacuation and pressure reduction, which takes a lot of time.

As for what technology can compress the time of this process? Maybe there are, but I haven't seen any super high-speed rail projects disclosed yet.

The above-mentioned problems are the important basis for the suspicion of many people in the industry as a scam. Wang Mengshu, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, once bluntly said that the concept of super high-speed rail is to a large extent bragging and still in the fantasy stage.

In short, it is technically infeasible, safety infeasible, reliability infeasible, economically infeasible, and environmentally infeasible. Relying on interest to study things that the country and the people don’t need will end up with nothing, broken and worthless.

How far is the fifth mode of transportation from us?

In general, even if the current super high-speed rail project is not a scam, it is still a long way from commercial use. However, the "superconducting magnetic levitation + vacuum tube" technology behind this does have research value and even become an important part of the future transportation system.

In fact, in 2017, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation to disclose is developing a "super high-speed rail" item projects, based on high-temperature superconducting maglev technology and vacuum line technology, and gradually achieve 10 km / h, 2000 km / h, 4000 km / h The maximum operating speed , but Aerospace Science and Industry did not give a specific timetable.

The National Key Laboratory of Traction Power at Southwest Jiaotong University is one of the earliest institutions in my country to study vacuum tube high-temperature superconducting magnetic levitation technology. According to Zhang Weihua , the chief professor of Southwest Jiaotong University, the test speed of the high-temperature superconducting magnetic levitation mode has exceeded the speed of sound in a 1500-meter vacuum pipeline that can simulate different low-pressure environments.

At present, Southwest Jiaotong University's "Multi-state Coupled Rail Transit Dynamic Model Test Platform" has been approved by the state in September, and it will reach a test speed of 1,500 kilometers per hour as early as next April.

Zhang Weihua believes that high-speed maglev rail transit will become the main direction of the future rail transit technology development . In fact, China’s “super high-speed rail” project has also received a lot of controversy after its debut, and there have been few media reports in the past two years.

Fu Zhihuan , former Minister of Railways and academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, once talked about his views on the super high-speed rail in a speech . He believes that even if the hyperloop is controversial, it is far from reaching the stage of landing, but it is still necessary to study, because the future of transportation will have a place for the hyperloop.

The prosperity and progress of human civilization is inseparable from faster and faster means of transportation. From horse-drawn carriages to automobiles, from automobiles to trains, from trains to airplanes, every innovation in transportation is accompanied by long-term technological research and development and testing.

The same is true for the Hyperloop. It is not a scam in itself, but it may take decades before it is expected to mature. And those commercial projects packaged with immature super high-speed rail technology are indeed suspected of "painting cakes," but as long as the bubble is bound to burst.

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