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HyperLoop May Work, Technically Speaking – But Not as Hyped

By Michael D. Setty

California Rail News Editor & Webmaster

When evaluating the potential for any new technology such as HyperLoop, consider that many new products fail. One source says that 85% of all new consumer products fail within two years (http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Markets/Why-do-85-of-new-CPG-products-fail-within-two-years; another says that 95% fail (http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/clay-christensens-milkshake-marketing). Still another source says 30%-49% (http://www.quora.com/Is-the-80-product-failure-rate-statistic-actually-true). For the “information” industry–which I take as including virtually all “high tech” firms–only 37% are in business after four years (http://www.statisticbrain.com/startup-failure-by-industry/).

In any case, failure is often likely and skepticism is called for. However, unlike many “gadgetbahn” technologies pushed for decades by a wide assortment of promoters and technologists, the Elon Musk-inspired “HyperLoop” has obtained substantial financial backing from venture capitalists despite the high risk of the technology failing to work as advertised.

The “serious entry” into the technology is HyperLoop One, a startup founded by well-known, successful high-tech entrepreneurs who so far have managed to raise $160 million from venture capital and other investors. HyperLoop One has also obtained serious interest from the United Arab Emirates for a proposed line between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. There are also proposals for a HyperLoop network connecting Melbourne and Sydney, Australia and nearby cities. The company has set up a test site for its technologies and concepts outside Las Vegas.

A video outlining HyperLoop One activities and their proposal for the United Arab Emirates is linked here: http://hyperloop-one.com/blog/full-presentation-hyperloop-ones-historic-agreement-dubai-rta.

In a clever public relations move, HyperLoop One held a worldwide competition asking for submittals from interested regions and parties vying for construction of the first operational HyperLoop routes. This contest generated more than 2,000 entries, which have now been whittled down to 35 finalists, from which HyperLoop One will select a handful for construction of the first routes (assuming it all works in the first place).

A competing effort is HyperLoop Transportation Technologies. HTT has attempted to obtain sufficient investment through crowd-sourcing, but is well behind HyperLoop One. HTT proposed construction of a test track in western Kings County in 2015, but so far the company has only 30 employees and investor support so far has been much less than HyperLoop One (though $100 million+ in mostly non-cash contributions have been claimed (http://hyperlooptransp.com/).

Blending HyperLoop with Personal Rapid Transit (PRT)

A significant twist in HyperLoop design and operations compared to Elon Musk’s original proposal is addition of a “personal rapid transit” (PRT) element. HyperLoop One’s HyperLoop capsules would be able to accept different kinds of cargo and passenger pods, including cargo containers, pods designed to carry different classes of passengers, self-driving cars, and even human-driven cars (e.g., in a manner roughly analogous to Amtrak’s Auto Train).

Each HyperLoop station would be designed with numerous docking bays designed to load and unload these various kinds of pods to/from HyperLoop capsules. Like earlier personal rapid transit concepts, self-driving pods would automatically travel from their origin to the HyperLoop terminal, automatically board a HyperLink capsule, reversing the process at the destination city through to the ultimate destination of the cargo or people using a pod.

In 2011, a system of independently-routed PRT pods began successful operation at London, England’s Heathrow International Airport between a remote parking lot and Terminal 5. However, to date the technology has not spread beyond Heathrow. Since the 1970’s, multiple PRT concepts and promoters have come and gone, mainly because such technologies offered no significant advantage over proven technologies such as rail and buses.

Some aspects of HyperLoop One’s proposed technological approach suggest that the HyperLoop concept may prove technically feasible. However, there are other aspects that also suggest that operationally, HyperLoop cannot live up to the hype, potentially undermining the economic case for the HyperLoop concept.

Switch to Maglev-Based Technology

The first major innovation made to the Musk concept by HyperLoop One was choosing magnetic levitation (“maglev”) as its basic vehicle and track technology. Unlike the unproven “air bearings” proposed in Elon Musk’s original paper, maglev technology is technologically proven and feasible from an engineering standpoint for both vehicles and track.

Several maglev lines operate around the world. The “flagship” line is the Shanghai Maglev between Central Shanghai and Shanghai International Airport (http://www.smtdc.com/en/), which began operation in 2004. The Shanghai Maglev has proven to be an operational success with speeds up to 267 mph and travel times of 7:20 to 8:10 for a 19 mile journey. However, the line has been an economic failure, failing to cover any significant share of its capital costs.

Maglevs have been proposed in several busy intercity corridors, such as Tokyo-Osaka to supplement the Shinkansen high-speed rail (HSR) line that opened in 1964, Baltimore-Washington, D.C., and several corridors in China including extensions to the Shanghai Maglev. However, maglevs have even higher construction costs than conventional high speed rail, a factor which has stymied new routes to date.

In-Service Speeds vs. Design Speed, and Curves

As previously mentioned, the current HyperLoop One concept marries a modification of the original Elon Musk proposal of “fast trains in a near-vacuum tube” to personal rapid transit. The first problem is that HyperLoop line-haul capacity will be considerably less than projected if safety parameters similar to other “guideway” (bureaucratic speak for “railroad”) technologies are followed.

Operational and safety experience from existing HSR systems suggests that top in-service speeds should be limited to 85% of guideway design speed. In this case, this means a top speed of around 600 mph inside the tubes rather than Mach 1 (700 mph+/-) at sea level. This speed restriction would lengthen projected HyperLoop travel times of 30-35 minutes between San Francisco and Los Angeles by several minutes.

Curves and junctions will also significantly slow down the average speed compared to what is claimed, except on unfettered relatively straight stretches of 250-350 miles, such as between Los Angeles and Las Vegas or along I-5 between Tracy and the base of the Grapevine grade south of Bakersfield. HyperLoop travel times between San Francisco and Los Angeles would be more likely to close to an hour each way, allowing for slower, relatively tight radius curves in urbanized areas, the straight 250-mile stretch along I-5, as well as mountain crossings through the Altamont Corridor and over the Tehachapis between the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles.

Wildly Optimistic Acceleration Rates

HyperLoop One is very optimistic about the rates of acceleration acceptable to the traveling public, let alone safety regulators. Apparently their assumptions are built around acceleration rates of about “5 meters per second per second” (5 m/sec/sec or 16.4 ft/sec/sec).

This means for each second of operation, speed increases by 16.4 feet per second; after 30 seconds, the trains would be traveling at 492 ft/sec or 335 mph. After 60 seconds, HyperLoop trains would be traveling at about 984 ft/sec or 670 mph.

In reality, this rate of acceleration is not operationally realistic, as it is not much slower than a ride in a “supercar” or jet fighter.

Such acceleration requires that all passengers and crews be seat-belted and objects securely restrained. Ensuring that all passengers are wearing their seatbelts would hamper quick turnarounds at terminals, in the same manner that boarding/exiting an airplane often requires 10-15 minutes at each end of a flight.

Jet airliners take about 60 seconds to reach takeoff speeds of around 170-180 mph, e.g., acceleration of about 4.4 feet/sec/sec. Typical automobiles accelerate at 10-12 ft/sec/sec, Supercars (and Teslas) that can go from 0 to 60 mph (88 feet/second) accelerate at 23-25 ft/sec/sec, while fighter jets accelerate at 30-35 ft/sec/sec.

If HyperLoop capsules, ahem, trains, accelerate at 1.6 ft/sec/sec that is typical of existing high-speed rail, after 60 seconds, you would be traveling about 67-68 mph. After three minutes, the train would be traveling at three times that speed or 201 mph, and so on.
At a cruising speed of 600 mph, HyperLoop trains will require 5-6 minutes at each end of a route for acceleration and braking, assuming safe, sustained acceleration rates of 1.6 ft/sec/sec or so from 0-600 and from 600-0 mph (current HSR trains average about 1.0 ft/sec/sec sustained acceleration to their top speeds). At this safe acceleration rate–like every other kind of train–passengers would not need seat belts.

HyperLoop Must Meet Same Safety Requirements as HSR

If established railroad safety practice are any guide for HyperLoop trains, trains would have to be kept at least two signal blocks apart in order to provide adequate margins of error for schedule variations, safe braking and operations. At 600 mph, this means minimum headways of 5-6 minutes between trains, and keeping trains at least 30 miles apart on the line-haul portion. This frequency is far longer than the 5-10 second headways at 600+ mph that would be required for sufficient system capacity with a hybrid HyperLink/PRT system, e.g., with low-capacity HyperLink capsules each carrying only a few pods of various kinds.

In turn, based on these limitations, small capacity vehicles mean a small overall capacity. In order to obtain HyperLoop capacity approaching that of conventional high-speed rail, the PRT aspects of the HyperLoop One proposal would have to abandoned, replaced by 1,000-2,000 passenger trains (10-12 trains per hour times 1,000-2,000 passengers = 10,000 to 24,000 passenger per hour).

Realistic HyperLoop Economics

In turn, HyperLoop operations that resemble a sped-up version of conventional HSR probably limits its applicability to only a handful of the busiest intercity passenger and freight corridors. If construction costs for other kinds of maglevs are a guide, HyperLoop construction is likely to cost $100-$200 million per mile.

This means only corridors such as the Northeast Corridor, Northeast-Chicago, Chicago-Texas, and Texas-Arizona-California may be economically feasible, fed by conventional medium-speed rail and HSR, and perhaps even airline routes in some cases.

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For an excellent overview why we shouldn’t obsess about over-hyped tech like HyperLoop, see http://denver.streetsblog.org/2017/01/20/subways-and-pods-a-history-of-denver-transit-and-why-we-shouldnt-obsess-over-tech/.

Self-Driving Cars: Not Worth the Trouble, Won’t Replace Transit

By Michael D. Setty, CRN Editor

Major media in the United States incessantly tell us that the widespread adoption of self-driving cars is just around the corner, and that this technological wonder is going to “disrupt” transportation on a broad scale. It is routinely asserted that most taxi and truck drivers will soon be out of jobs.

The claim that rail transit and rail passenger service will be rendered obsolete is of more interest to rail advocates, despite almost non-existent evidence. Already more opportunistic rail opponents claim that there should not be any more investments in new rail lines and service because the “self-driving cars are coming.

For example, The Antiplanner–a blog by Randal O’Toole, perhaps the most outspoken rail opponent in the U.S.–constantly claims that rail is obsolete because self-driving cars are “inevitable,” among other things (For a sampling of O’Toole’s vast collection of blog posts on this topic, see www.ti.org/antiplanner, search for “self driving cars”).

Well, no. As a 2014 Fortune article put it:

Political ideology, as it tends to, may rush into the vacuum of facts. Florida offers a preview where driverless cars have become part of right-wing pushback to mass transit plans. It was Brandes who introduced legislation that made Florida one of only four states to allow monitored testing of driverless vehicles on public roads. Republican governor Rick Scott, who once was strongly associated with the populist Tea Party movement, has made public appearances to support driverless car development in Florida even as he has rejected federal funding for a Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail line.

Florida transit advocates pointed out that the supposed quick arrival of self-driving cars are simply a stalling tactic:

Others in the fight see the autonomous vehicles argument as little more than a political stalling tactic, deployed by those who oppose mass transit for ideological reasons. “We are the last metropolitan area in the United States to develop a regional transit system,” says Phil Compton, a national Sierra Club staffer who has been tasked with supporting Greenlight [a transit plan for Pinellas County, Florida] for the past three years. “That is an objective fact. How many more decades do we have to wait for an alternative to what we have now?”

(Source: http://fortune.com/2014/11/02/trains-autonomous-vehicles-politics/).

A website catering to driving instructors, www.roadio.com, gives five reasons why self-driving cars will never catch on the way their apologists claim (paraphrased):

  1. The technology is too expensive and offers vehicle purchasers limited benefits compared to the extra cost of self-driving technology.
  2. The technology is still mostly untested and imperfect, “outside the Google hothouse.”
  3. Self-driving cars are a legal minefield, and it will take decades to work out liability and a host of other sticky issues.
  4. Society’s tolerance for malfunctions (“machine error”) is extraordinarily low, illustrated by the fact that plane and train crashes are generally headline news, mainly because they are so rare. A few more incidents like the driver death caused by a semi-automated Tesla that failed to see a tractor-trailer will slow down self-driving car deployment and adoption to a crawl.
  5. Self-driving cars are too disruptive. Paid drivers will not sit idly by while their jobs disappear. Political action will delay if not stop complete automation (sic) in its tracks.

The British political magazine New Statesman recently ran an article by transport export Christopher Wolmar, Transport’s Favourite Myths: Why We Will Never Own Driverless Cars. Wolmar points out that there are far more urgent transportation problems that are obscured by “all the hype.”

For example, Elon Musk claims that “fully autonomous” cars will be on the road by 2018. But the article points out the numerous hardware problems that must be overcome if self-driving cars are to live up to the hype. For example, sensors work on sunny, clear days but very poorly in bad weather. While not mentioned in the article, designing electronic components and sensors with “military grade” reliability results in very high unit costs. Wolmar points out:

The driverless car does not stand up to scrutiny. When pressed, Musk conceded that the “fully autonomous” car that he said would be ready by 2018 would not be completely automatic, nor would it go on general sale. There is a pattern. Whenever I ask people in the field what we can expect by a certain date, it never amounts to anything like a fully autonomous vehicle but rather a set of aids for drivers.

This is a crucial distinction. For this technology to be transformational, the cars have to be 100 per cent autonomous [emphasis added.] It is worse than useless if the “driver” has to watch over the controls, ready to take over if an incident seems likely to occur. Such a future would be more dangerous than the present, as our driving skills will have diminished, leaving us less able to react. [emphasis added] Google notes that it can take up to 17 seconds for a person to respond to alerts of a situation requiring him or her to assume control of the vehicle.

Source: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/observations/2016/04/transports-favourite-myth-why-we-will-never-own-driverless-cars

This point is also reinforced by an April 2015 Washington Post article:

“This notion, fall back to a human, in part it’s kind of a fallacy,” Eustice said. “To fall back on a human the car has to be able to have enough predictive capability to know that 30 seconds from now, or whatever, it’s in a situation it can’t handle. The human, they’re not going to pay attention in the car. You’re going to be on your cell phone, you’re going to totally tune out, whatever. To take on that cognitive load, you can’t just kick out and say oh ‘take over.’ ”

(Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2015/03/16/driverless-cars-a-tremendous-innovation-with-a-glaring-achilles-heel)

Another potential Achilles Heel often ignored in the self-driving car propaganda haze is that it seems probable that government regulators will not allow sale of a self-driving design unless it has been programmed to follow established traffic laws, or at least most of them:

The project at Stanford is considering more minor ethical issues, which may have less severe consequences but will crop up more often. For example, if an autonomous car approaches an obstacle that takes up half a lane, and there’s a double line in the middle of the road, what should the vehicle do? A human driver might not think twice about momentarily breaking the law and passing over the lines to get past – assuming there’s no oncoming traffic, obviously – but is it right for autonomous cars to be programmed to plan ahead of time to break the law? And if so, under what circumstances, and to what extent? (http://newatlas.com/autonomous-cars-ethics/44685/)

Despite the efforts of some very smart people at Stanford, the history of artificial intelligence is not reassuring on this matter. It also inevitably will attract the attention of law enforcement, attorneys and politicians, guaranteeing that arguments of when and under what circumstances self-driving cars can legitimately “break the law” will drag on for many years, if not decades.

Wolmar identifies the obscured political agenda behind self-driving cars in his New Statesman article, the anti-transit political agenda of Randal O’Toole and others of his ilk:

The danger of all the hype is that politicians will assume that the driverless revolution obviates the need to search for solutions to more urgent problems, such as congestion and pollution. Why bother to build infrastructure, such as new Tube lines or tram systems, or to push for road pricing, if we’ll all end up in autonomous pods? Google all but confesses that its autonomous cars are intended to be an alternative to public transport – the opposite of a rational solution to the problems that we face.

Backgrounder No. 2: South Tyrol Regional Rail Restored for $4 Million/Mile

Photo: A DMU trainset on the Val Venosta line.

Link to full article: http://www.calrailnews.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/TRACBackgrounderTwo-ValVenostaCheep.pdf

Summary of TRAC Backgrounder No. 2

Californians need to wake up, because at the same time our state seems unable to build new local rail or high speed tracks for less than $70 million a mile, Europeans are showing how to do it for as little as $4 million a mile.

In Italy’s Val Venosta, a regional branch line that had grown weeds for 15 years is now an engine for tourism and eco-friendly development.

…The line was originally meant to connect on its west end to Switzerland and Austria, but the war and division of Southern Tyrol from Austria put that idea on ice.

…Service was taken over in 1918 by the Italian State Railways (Ferrovie dello Statto) but Rome didn’t seem to have much use for the line.

…Discontent by locals and tourists with the increase in road traffic in the Val Venosta led to many voices calling for a reopening of the rail service, including a threated tax strike.

In 1999 the line was turned over to the South Tyrol regional government, which rebuilt it from 2000 to 2004 under the leadership of the STA Transportstrukturen Ltd., a publicly-owned enterprise.

…The new infrastructure uses Y-shaped metal crossties that are more stable than concrete ties for light trains, require less capital cost and are cheaper to maintain.   Also, the fact the old rails never had been removed in the decade and a half of abandonment preserved the right-of-way from alternate uses such as highways, and the line never completely disappeared from public consciousness.

Link to full article: http://www.calrailnews.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/TRACBackgrounderTwo-ValVenostaCheep.pdf

www.ferroviavalvenosta.it

TRAC Backgrounder No 1: U.S. Trains Too Costly To Operate

A study by consultant Civity recently published by Britain’s Office of Rail Regulation provides some insight why no profitable California train services exist, despite their popularity. It’s because U.S. costs are out of control, compared to the 17 European and British passenger operators studied. The benchmark study compared 2011 data for Irish, Belgian, French, Dutch, and Danish conventional services with a German private carrier and 11 domestic British routes. British routes operated by contractors, but most others are publicly operated…

…If you include track access [charges], European operators show a cost range from $15 to $35 per train mile with the majority of systems being close to $25 per train mile.

Most other cost elements show a vast discrepancy. The comparison with recent California results is particularly shocking. 2012 cost per train mile for the San Joaquins, Capitol Corridor, and Surfliners ranged from $65 to $85. Caltrain and ACE are over $100. Metrolink is about $70 per train mile, but is saved from worse performance by its ability to levy track access charges on other operators. Amtrak as a whole is about $100/train mile.

TRACBackgrounderOne-RailOpCostsB

Adapted from article in California Rail News, October 2014