Ever since Elon Musk got stuck in traffic on the way to the airport, the world has been fascinated by the idea of the Hyperloop, a way of moving people underground, far below the congestion and confusion on surface streets. Soon there were plans afoot to bore tunnels that would connect LA with SF (or at least Dodger Stadium), and DC with Baltimore. There was an annual competition at SpaceX headquarters where teams from universities around the world came to show off their latest creations.
In the end, though, the idea foundered on the hard rocks of reality. This week, Virgin Hyperloop announced that it has suspended work on a passenger version of the futuristic transportation mode and will concentrate solely on moving cargo in the future. Citing a report in the Financial Times, Autoblog says the company has laid off 111 employees — nearly half of its total workforce. A spokesperson for the company announced that supply chain issues and the effects of the Covid pandemic contributed to the company’s change in direction.
From its beginning, Virgin Hyperloop was working on developing a vacuum tube system that would carry both passengers and freight. One of its earliest concepts was an “inland port,” in which cargo vessels would put containers onto capsules that are shot inland before they’re processed. That way, the main logistics hub wouldn’t need to be beside the sea, and could instead be at the heart of a transit hub closer to customers. [Note: Musk’s original vision was for tunnels much too small for standard shipping containers. Making the tunnels larger adds exponentially to the costs of construction.]
DP World, the Dubai-owned ports and logistics company, invested in the technology and currently holds a majority stake in Virgin Hyperloop. In 2018, it launched “Cargospeed,” a sub-brand dedicated to moving cargo. Virgin Hyperloop has been in a downward spiral recently after Josh Giegel, one of the few people to actually travel in a passenger pod, quit the company.
There hasn’t been a Hyperloop competition at SpaceX since 2019 and the splashy news events from The Boring Company about its plans to build tunneling machines that are faster than a snail have disappeared. If Musk and Tesla don’t have the resources to build a less expensive passenger car, they clearly don’t have the bandwidth to move forward with the Hyperloop.
Conceptually, there is nothing wrong with the Hyperloop idea. The acquisition costs for land-based transportation routes is prohibitively high. Surface congestion is bad and getting worse. A partial vacuum inside the tunnels would reduce wind resistance, making near supersonic speeds theoretically possible. But the gap between theory and reality was just too large to cross, at least as far as moving people is concerned. Is there a place for underground cargo systems? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.
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