Should SA invest in a hyperloop between Cape Town and Joburg?

2018-04-12 13:41 - Selene Brophy
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The Hyperloop system may seem far off in the future, but back in the day when many countries were investing and building underground rail-network systems, South Africa clearly was not. 

If you've travelled anywhere in Europe, the ease and efficiency in most of its public transport systems is often envy-inducing stuff for us Saffas. 

As to whether South Africa will learn from past procrastination, obviously rests on the viability and overall cost and investment required to create such a future-focused system.

But the reality is that the outlandish concept, thought up by Elon Musk, is getting closer to the mainstream, with prototypes and pegged plans being hatched for key parts of the world including India and Dubai. 

While mostly at concept and testing phase it all raises the focus of how green-economy-conscious South Africa really is and whether this would be a viable transport system to plan towards - especially when you consider the game-changing status of the Gautrain.

SEE: #TravelTrends: Gautrain launches new app and website with real-time trips

A recent Car Trawler series published by Skift.com takes a deep-dive into the autonomous and high-speed future of short haul transport.

Catapulting the innovation into the spotlight has been the very public spat between industry leaders like Musk and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi about the benefits of flying cars versus the 700 miles per hour levitating pods of the hyperloop. 

While Khosrowshahi weighs the intense planning needed, like digging tunnels to the ease of flying, Musk calls out the invasion of privacy and noise. 

"If you love drones above your house, you’ll really love vast numbers of “cars” flying over your head that are 1000 times bigger and noisier and blow away anything that isn’t nailed down when they land," says Musk. 

Further to this, Car Trawler contextualises the roll out of the next step in transport solutions by saying, “The idea of putting commuters in a levitating pod and firing them at high speed through a long pipe may seem like a preposterous notion – but placing travellers in a metal tube with wings and shooting them into the air was just as outlandish in the 19th century". 

According to Singularity Hub, "Flying cars have been just around the corner for decades, and despite concept vehicles dating back to the middle of the last century, none has ever made it into production".

There are reasons to believe things are starting to change and rapidly.

Drone technology is certainly speeding up the production timeline. Chinese start-up Ehang as developed a taxi drone or flying car that it plans to roll out as soon as 2018. Airbus’ self-piloting Vahana multi-rotor, called CityAirbus is set to be a multi-passenger, self-piloted battery-powered vertical take-off and landing vehicle designed for urban air mobility. It completed its first test flight in January, with Airbus saying it plans to have a production version ready by 2020.  

INFOGRAPHIC: CityAirbus powers on 'Iron Bird' ground test facility for urban air mobility

Uber believes the next, natural step for the company is flying taxis. Expected to be small, electric aircraft that take off and land vertically (VTOL) with zero emissions and quiet enough to operate in cities, according to its prototype design. Expected to cut travel time to 15 minutes, in an informal industry like South Africa - affordability always wins when weighing the issue or ride-sharing, public transport services and actual car ownership.

 SEE: Uber unveils sexy new image of future flying taxi of 2020 

Aeronautics and defence manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, has officially been delegated by NASA to develop technologies to overcome a major gripe of supersonic flight - the sonic boom - so issues raised by Musk about the sound of the shock waves associated with an object travelling through the air faster than the speed of sound may have been solved by the time these vehicles are ready to take to the sky.  

READ: What's that noise? Supersonic air travel set to make a silent comeback

So what is the Hyperloop exactly?

Dreamed up by the team at Musk’s SpaceX and revealed to the world in a white paper penned by the business magnate, titled Hyperloop Alpha, in which he described the proposed system as “a new mode of transport” which seeks to be “both fast and inexpensive for people and goods.”

Musk has envisioned a high-speed pod that rests on a bed of air which is pushed under the vessel by an electric compressor fan in the shuttle’s nose. Traveling on an air cushion, like a puck on an air hockey table, will allow the pod to travel at high speed through a tube without creating friction.

“Air bearings, which use the same basic principle as an air hockey table, have been demonstrated to work at speeds of Mach 1.1 with very low friction,” says Musk in his white paper.

In order to get around the prospect of battery power aboard the pod, external linear electric motors placed along the pipe powered by overhead solar panels have been proposed. These are required for less than 1 percent of the tube length, making powering the Hyperloop particularly cost effective, despite the rather sizable outlay costs, which are estimated to be around $6 billion in the white paper.

Skift's series further highlights how the technology is poised to have disruptive potential, "if developed in key locations linking cities that have a high volume of air traffic. 

Musk estimated the cost of a seat in a Hyperloop pod to be “$20 for a one-way trip,” or about R240 at R11.99/$ - based on amortizing the set up cost of $6 billion over 20 years. Musk has pegged the Hyperloop as most fitting for “high traffic city pairs that are less than about 1,500 kilometres or 900 miles apart.” After that point, “supersonic air travel ends up being faster and cheaper,” according to Musk. 

Cape Town and Johannesburg are about 1 397km apart, with an average low-cost return airfare ticket pegged at about R1 500 or roughly four full tanks of petrol at an average of R650 per tank, which equates to R2 600 for the full journey with a 50l tank vehicle. The long-term socio-economic impact is obvious but the infrastructure investment would be considerable. 

Virgin Hyperloop on the route to reality

Richard Branson’s Virgin Group recently took over the Hyperloop one project as part of a rebranding investment to raise $85 million fundraising for the now Virgin Hyperloop One team. They're set to test a 1 640 feet (500 metres) tube called the DevLoop on an isolated patch of desert 35 miles north of Las Vegas, Nevada. The end-goal is set for a commercial system launch to be in place in the US by 2021.

Current tests involve cargo and passengers in a prototype pod at 240 miles per hour or 386 kilometres per hour. “We plan to have a single type of pod that can do both cargo and people,” said Anita Sengupta, senior vice president at Hyperloop One, in an interview with Wired. 

India and Dubai set to loop into new system 

Richard Branson announced the Indian State of Maharashtra’s intent to build a Virgin Hyperloop in February 2018. According to reports, "the proposed Hyperloop route will link central Pune, Navi Mumbai International Airport, to Mumbai in 25 minutes, connecting 26 million people".

Skift states the system will support about 150 million passenger trips per year and create a thriving, competitive mega-region - with studies showing that the "Pune-Mumbai route has the potential to drum up $55 billion in socio-economic benefits, time savings, accident reduction, and operational cost savings, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions up to 86,000 tons over 30 years of operation".

Virgin also recently unveiled their new pod prototype for the Dubai to Abu Dhabi Hyperloop, "expected to hit speeds up to 760 miles per hour (1 200 kilometres per hour), making the 90 minute car journey in only 12 minutes".

SEE: Future of Travel: Dubai unveils plans for new Hyperloop train in Abu Dhabi  

The big reveal for the luxurious low friction passenger pod was part of the United Arab Emirates’ Innovation Month, which has become a cutting edge transport showcase since Dubai’s Road Transport Authority (RTA) announced that 25 percent of all journeys are to be driverless by 2030.

Europe’s first Hyperloop experiment 

According to Skift, a team based in the Netherlands is spearheading Europe’s first Hyperloop experiment. Hardt Hyperloop emerged from Delft Hyperloop, the team from the Delft University of Technology in South Holland Province, Netherlands, that won Elon Musk’s 2017 Hyperloop competition.

They are supported by the Royal BAM Construction Group, Dutch Railways, and Delft University of Technology and UNIIQ, an investment fund focused on the proof-of-concept phase.

In December 2017 the project received the necessary regulatory approval to investigate the financing of a high-speed test facility for the Hyperloop in Flevoland, in cooperation with Hardt Hyperloop and other private parties. The Dutch team has developed “the first low-speed test facility in the Netherlands,” according to Hardt Hyperloop’s head of marketing Jelte Altena, while also securing an initial financing round of about $155 million (1.25 million euros).

“It’s great to see that the opportunities offered by the Hyperloop are now also acknowledged by politicians,” said Tim Houter, CEO and co-founder of Hardt Hyperloop. “Things are going in the right direction.”