High-speed ground transportation took another big step this week with a live test of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop system at a test track in Las Vegas on Sunday.
According to a CNN Business report, the hyperloop uses magnetic levitation much like that used in high-speed rail projects in Japan and Germany in a vacuum tube, and is capable of speeds as high as 600 mph.
Virgin Hyperloop’s pod only reached 100 mph on the track, according to the company, as the test track track is just 500 meters long, limiting how fast the pods can go.
Still, Virgin Hyperloop execs view the test as a major milestone and a step toward commercializing hyperloop technology, CNN reported.
Josh Giegel, Virgin Hyperloop’s Chief Technology Officer, and Sara Luchian, its Director of Passenger Experience, took the first ride.
They sat in Virgin Hyperloop’s two-person pod, which includes seat belts, plush seats and small windows. Giegel told CNN that hyperloop pods can travel at the speed of aircraft but with a fraction of the energy consumption.
Virgin Hyperloop envisions building systems that connect cities, and that future commercial systems will have pods that seat between 25 and 30 people, CNN reported.
However, hurdles still remain for hyperloop transportation.
While nations such as China are now experimenting with ultra-fast trains that can travel as fast as jetliners, America is still struggling with advanced transport systems.
Virgin Hyperloop still needs to raise enough money for its next project, a six-mile, US$500 million test facility in West Virginia.
CEO Jay Walder said that pods at the facility wouldn’t reach 600 mph, but declined to share how fast they would go, CNN reported.
The test facility is being built to certify Virgin Hyperloop’s technology, said Walder, who believes that the company’s hyperloop system will be certified in 2025 or 2026, and that we could see hyperloop projects before the decade ends.
Magnetic levitation lifts a train car above a track, as the magnets’ like poles push the train upward. The magnets also propel the train as like poles repel and push the train forward, and the opposite poles attract and pull the train forward.
Magnetic levitation has been in use on some train systems since the 1970s, with a commercial version in Shanghai in operation since 2004 able to reach speeds over 250 mph.
According to The Verge, the test track is 500 meters long and 3.3 meters in diameter. The track is located about 30 minutes from Las Vegas, out in the kind of desert that hyperloop pods could one day traverse in minutes.
The company says it has conducted over 400 tests on that track, but never before with human passengers — until this week.
“No one has done anything close to what we’re talking about right now,” Walder told The Verge.
“This is a full scale, working hyperloop that is not just going to run in a vacuum environment, but is going to have a person in it. No one has come close to doing it.”
The Pegasus pod used for the first passenger test, also called XP-2, was designed with help from famed Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’ design firm, The Verge reported.
It represents a scaled-down version of what Virgin Hyperloop hopes will eventually be a full-sized pod capable of carrying a full load of passengers.
Inside, its lush white interior is meant to be familiar to passengers, who may not be immediately comfortable with the idea of slingshotting through a vacuum-sealed tube at the speed of a commercial jet.
Virgin Hyperloop isn’t alone in its interest in hyperloops. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced a concept for such a system in 2013.