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A new form of ultra high-speed travel is moving a step closer to reality.
Earlier this month, human passengers rode in a hyperloop train for the first time ever. The Virgin Hyperloop test run was on a 500-meter track north of Las Vegas with a passenger pod traveling inside an enclosed tube at more than 100 mph, though it could have reached much greater speeds.
Virgin Hyperloop is one of a handful of companies currently trying to build such a system for passenger travel. Sara Luchian, the company’s director of passenger experience, was one of two people on board the test ride.
“It was exhilarating,” she says. “I mean, it was such a thrill, largely because of the psychology of the moment, just understanding the magnitude of what we were accomplishing. But of course, it was a sporty ride that was quite thrilling physically as well.”
Hyperloop technology was conceived by Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk in 2012 to address the two main issues that slow down conventional freight transportation: friction and air resistance. The futuristic high-speed system is designed with passenger pods that move through a partial vacuum in steel tubes.
“So with the Hyperloop, our vehicles, which we call pods, accelerate gradually via electric propulsion inside of this low pressure tube. It's not a perfect vacuum, but it's very close,” Luchian says. “And so the pod actually glides along using the magnetic levitation. It can reach very high speeds because there's no friction, a vehicle against track, and there's ultra-low aerodynamic drag.”
The test ride lasted a total of 15 seconds, she says. The pod reached 107 mph in six seconds, but it can reach speeds of up to 600 mph given a longer tube.
“I felt the acceleration a little bit,” she says. “It was maybe two or three times as strong as what you feel when you're taking off in a plane, but certainly not uncomfortable.”
With a longer tube, Luchian says the acceleration would be slower so that the G-forces felt would be similar to what is experienced on a conventional passenger train today.
In other words, “you'd barely feel it,” she says.
The test is a major milestone for Virgin Hyperloop because they were able to demonstrate the safety of the system, Luchian says. The company also recently announced its Hyperloop certification center in West Virginia, which puts it a step closer to having independent regulators review the system.
“The system is designed to be inherently safer than other modes,” she explains. “It's operating autonomously in an enclosed tube, so it's not susceptible to weather, to accidents at grade crossings or a cow on the track. It's not susceptible to human error or power outages.”
But there's still a lot of hurdles to clear before the company reaches the point of moving passengers and cargo at any significant scale.
“This is the first new mode of transportation in over a century,” Luchian says. “I think one of the issues with existing modes is that they have legacy problems from the 20th century, whether it's rail, subway, air, and we are building for a 21st century solution.”
Luchian says the reason why Hyperloop is different is because it starts fresh rather than “essentially leapfrogging the technology of the last several decades.”
“We're moving at such high speeds that we can effectively connect cities like metro stops,” she says. “It's on demand. It's direct to destination. We can really transform economies and the way people live.”
The promise of the Hyperloop is not only to more efficiently connect major cities, but also to make rural and suburban areas more accessible, she says.
The Hyperloop “would really transform where we could live, access to affordable housing, but also to good jobs, which are increasingly in city centers,” she says. “I think the real power of the Hyperloop is demonstrated when it is a network and not just an A to B route, but of course, that will be some years ahead.”
This segment aired on November 23, 2020.
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