You soon may be able to commute from your home in Pittsburgh to your office in Philadelphia in less than an hour
January 8, 2017 12:00 AM
By Vivek Wadhwa
Picture the commute of the future: You live in Palo Alto, Calif., but work 350 miles away in Los Angeles. Or you live in Pittsburgh and work 305 miles away in Philadelphia. After your morning latte, you click on a smartphone app to summon your digital chauffeur. An autonomous car shows up at your front door three minutes later to drive you to a Hyperloop station, where a pod then transports you through a vacuum tube at 760 mph. When you reach your destination, another self-driving car awaits to take you to your office. You arrive in less than an hour.
That is the type of scenario that Hyperloop Transportation Technologies CEO Dirk Ahlborn laid out for me at a recent conference in Dubai. He was not talking about something that would happen in the next century; he expects the first of these systems to be operational in the United Arab Emirates by 2020. The Abu Dhabi government has just announced that it has been working with his company to connect by Hyperloop two UAE cities separated by 105 miles, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.
Elon Musk introduced the idea in a 2013 a paper titled “Hyperloop Alpha.” Mr. Musk envisaged a mass transit system in which trains travel as fast as 760 mph in pressurized capsules. These would ride on an air cushion in steel tubes and be driven by linear induction motors and air compressors. He claimed the system would be safer, faster and cheaper than trains, cars, boats and supersonic planes, for distances of up to at least 900 miles, and said that it would be resistant to earthquakes and generate more energy through its solar panels than it would use.
Two start-ups took up Mr. Musk’s challenge to develop the technology: HTT and Hyperloop One. These companies have raised more than $100 million each and say they will have operational systems in three to four years and that they have governments backing them. Hyperloop One demonstrated elements of the technology in the Las Vegas desert last May. The sheiks I spoke with in Dubai were most excited about HTT’s system.
Even if Hyperloop technology doesn’t pan out, the digital chauffeurs surely are coming. Self-driving cars such as the Tesla that I drive can already take control of the wheel on highways and can monitor traffic around them better than humans can. Their sensors enable them to see in 360 degrees and communicate with each other to negotiate rights of way.
By 2020, self-driving cars will have progressed so far that they likely will drive safely at speeds as fast as 200 mph in their own partitioned lanes on highways. In these circumstances, the commute to Los Angeles from San Francisco would take only an hour and a half — without the need to catch a connection to a supeic pod. From Abu Dhabi to Al Ain or Dubai could take the car 30 to 40 minutes, door to door. In other words, Mr. Musk’s self-driving cars and HTT’s short-haul Hyperloops may be competing with each other.
I’m one of those who would prefer the convenience of traveling by car so I could keep extra stuff in the back and work uninterrupted along the way. In any case, for longer journeys, say from Pittsburgh to Miami, catching a Hyperloop will make more sense than riding in a self-driving car.
The point is that we are on the verge of a transportation revolution. For decades — actually, centuries — we have been dependent on locomotives and, more recently, airplanes to take us long distances. The basic technologies have hardly advanced. The entire industry is about to be disrupted. Many of us will choose to take shared cars and Hyperloops; others will own personal self-driving cars. And we will take fewer rides in trains and planes.
That is why new rail-based, high-speed transportation systems, such as the one that California has long been debating, are not sensible investments. By the time they are complete, our modes of mass transportation will have changed. The California project aims to move 20 million to 24 million passengers a year from downtown L.A. to downtown San Francisco in 2 hours 40 minutes. It is projected to cost $64 billion when completed around 2030. By then, we will be debating whether human beings should be allowed to drive cars, and public rail systems will be facing bankruptcy because of cheaper and better alternatives.
The wise investment will be in accelerating the adoption of self-driving cars and reserving lanes for them, and in building energy-efficient long-distance transportation systems that do not consume even more time, money and arable land than we have lost already. For distances in the hundreds or thousands of miles, we’d do well to explore Hyperloops and other environmentally sensitive modes of mass transportation. They are likely to be more cost-effective than laying new railways.
Vivek Wadhwa is distinguished fellow and professor at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley and a director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University. He wrote this for The Washington Post.
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