A hyper loop train. Image: iStock

Joining countries such as the US, Canada, France, Austria, and Britain, India has entered the brave new world of hyperloop travel, participating in the global debate about whether this revolutionary technology, which allows passengers to travel in a near-vacuum at the speed of sound, is really possible or just a pipe dream.

On February 22, British entrepreneur and technological adventurer Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One signed a memorandum of understanding with the Maharashtra state government to build a hyperloop transport system between Mumbai and Pune. It could cut road travel time from about four hours to just 20 minutes.

Other Indian cities, including Chennai, Bangalore and Vijayawada, have joined municipalities around the world in proposing hyperloop links that are in various stages of study and development, for example Miami-Orlando, Chicago-Columbus-Pittsburgh, Toronto-Montreal, Edinburgh-London, Paris-Amsterdam, Mexico City-Guadalajara, and Vienna-Budapest.

If it proves to be feasible, the new age of hyperloop travel could cut the travel time between cities from hours to minutes, changing the economic face of the world’s biggest and busiest urban centers

If it proves to be feasible, the new age of hyperloop travel could cut the travel time between cities from hours to minutes, changing the economic face of the world’s biggest and busiest urban centers.

Transporting cargo would take much less time, with costs and air pollution reduced. People in Boston could work in New York, and Hamburg residents could take jobs in Berlin.

This environmentally friendly mode of transport could see commuters traveling in a high-tech pod, like an underground Concorde shooting to destinations at speeds of 1,200km/h. It uses technology similar to the German-origin magnetic levitation (maglev) trains, but the hyperloop vehicle zooms through a very low-pressure tunnel underground.

SpaceX and Tesla Inc founder Elon Musk’s six-year-old version of hyperloop raises plenty of questions about safety, economies of scale, logistics, practicality, and even whether it is necessary.

But such questions – requiring answers costing billions of investment dollars to arrive at – are not much different from the ones that were asked by skeptics when earlier revolutionary transportation systems were proposed.

Indore, Madhya Pradesh–based DGWHyperloop, Asia’s first hyperloop company, and fellow pioneers like Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop, California-based Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (which is involved in the south India project), and Canada’s Transpod Inc are facing the same kind of skepticism that frustrated aircraft pioneers a hundred years ago.

History warns against casually dismissing pioneering  transportation technology

History warns against casually dismissing pioneering transportation technology. Barely a century ago, the idea of air travel – of people traveling safely in the sky inside a flying tube – seemed as feasible as flying on a magic carpet in an Arabian Nights tale.

Even steam engines and trains, circa 1835 in England, were dismissed as “most ridiculous,” with dire warnings that “boilers would burst and blow passengers to atoms.”

Great scientific minds also underestimated new travel technology. British physicist Lord Kelvin declared in 1895 that the idea of a heavier-than-air flying craft was impossible. Eight years later, near a little town called Kitty Hawk in Dare county, North Carolina, brothers Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville Wright (1871-1948) made the first controlled flight of a heavier-than-air craft.

The Wright Brothers’ first powered flight on December 17, 1903. After their success at Kitty Hawk, they left their cycle business and formed an aircraft production company in 1909. 

Yet not even the Wright brothers’ success in Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903, could silence skeptics. Few believed the Wright brothers had succeeded – after more than 2,000 years of ideas, efforts, trials, errors and failures to build a flying machine. A French newspaper dismissively called the brothers “bluffers.”

But the Wright brothers had indeed given humanity wings to fly. Within a decade, the Sopwith Camel biplane and the Fokker triplane flown by German flying ace “The Red Baron” (Manfred von Richthofen) and his famous “Flying Circus” became the first combat flying machines.

Less than 20 years later, the first passenger aircraft, the Boeing 247, appeared. It could fly 10 passengers at a speed of 250km/h, and could not soar higher than 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) – flyers could faint from lack of oxygen at higher altitudes.

Two passengers playing chess inside a Pan Am Clipper seaplane in Alameda, California, in October 1936. The early Pan Am Clippers flew the Pacific routes between San Francisco and Hong Kong, Hawaii, and Manila.

The world of flying evolved dramatically barely 70 years after Orville Wright died on January 30, 1948. This  trailer (below) for the excellent documentary License to Fly has six high-definition cameras taking us inside the cockpit of an Airbus A330-300 Swiss LX64 flight between Zurich and Miami (and return flight LX65), with Captain Thomas Frick and the methodical Senior Flying Officer Jennifer Knecht:

“Stick to your dream … and keep following it,” as Frick told trainee pilots in Miami, was the pathway of determined courage that kept thousands of engineers, across centuries, following their ideas, overcoming hurdles, solving problems, to what ultimately became trains, cars, planes and wondrous machines of convenience common in our everyday life.

Barely three months after the Wright brothers’ historic flight, an article in the March 1904 issue of the respected Popular Sciences Monthly  dismissed the idea of commercial passenger planes: “The machines will eventually be fast, they will be used in sport, but they are not to be thought of as commercial carriers. To say nothing of the danger, the sizes must remain small and the passengers few….”

The hyperloop global cooperation ‘movement’

Unlike air travel in its infancy, hyperloop faces challenges better by being an open-source technology. Proponents call global hyperloop  cooperation a “movement.”

Last July, Hyperloop One announced the completion of its first full-scale test and called it a “Kitty Hawk” moment. But major challenges remain: creating entry-exit points for passengers, the safety of the tubular pod carrying users, project price tags of US$6 billion, and the test speed of 70km/h being only one-tenth of whizzing along at nearly the speed of sound.

Whether hyperloop overcomes challenges to deliver promises or not, the history of technology shows that human ingenuity and persistence cannot be underestimated. And new technology is rarely wasted, finding uses one way or another.

In every beneficial field of human endeavor, we owe a deep debt of gratitude to courageous pioneers who crossed the horizons of possibility by refusing to accept the word ”impossible.”

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Raja Murthy

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

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