On May 12, in the desert of Nevada, engineers and executives from Hyperloop One gathered together to test their technology. It was the middle of the night. Anticipation was high. Co-founder Shervin Pishevar would later describe this as their “Kitty Hawk moment,” equating their hyperloop test to the iconic beginnings of aviation. After shooting a metal sled through a 1,600-foot steel tube at 70 mph, they declared victory. It was the first full-system test of a hyperloop, in which all of the different components could be seen to work in unison. In a subsequent test at the end of July, a Hyperloop One pod achieved an even greater speed at 192 mph.
To date, Hyperloop One has raised $160 million in pursuit of an innovative transportation alternative. Although the 260-plus employee company has been pitching visions to the public in which passengers are whisked from city to city, at speeds that may eventually exceed 700 mph, many safety concerns remain. And the United States Department of Transportation doesn’t know how to regulate this technology if it comes to fruition.
In a podcast interview with Recode Decode, former Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said, “Will it happen some place? Absolutely, I’m sure it will. Not even sure it’s going to happen first in the U.S., to be honest. But I think there will be some proof points out there to show that hyperloop is a real thing. And whether it’s passengers first or freight first — probably I would think, probably more freight will move first on hyperloop.”
Foxx stated that government regulation delays the adoption of new transportation technology. However, he emphasized that it’s important to consider all safety aspects.
Arrivo is a competitor to Hyperloop One, based near downtown Los Angeles. Its website states: “Arrivo is building technology based on the hyperloop architecture that will deliver a truly 21st century seamless experience for passengers and freight.”
Arrivo’s founder Brogran BamBrogran, who began his career as a design engineer at Northrop Grumman, says that hyperloop may move freight before it ever moves people. Although his company aspires to be in the business of shuttling passengers across vast distances, he wants to start off by proving that hyperloop can transport freight safely and efficiently.
Hardt Global Mobility CEO Tim Houter has also spoken publicly about the potential for freight transport via hyperloop.
“When you are implementing a hyperloop system, it will go a lot further than just transporting passengers. You’re not getting just a fast people mover,” said Houter, before explaining that the system could also transport large freight containers. “You’re getting one system that can almost move everything you can dream of.”
As the owner of a third-party logistics company called FreightSavvy, Chris Facey specializes in the movement of general cargo throughout the United States. In an exclusive interview, he said that a successful hyperloop would majorly disrupt the transportation industry.
“The proposed projects, rolled out strategically, will disrupt parts of the industry and augment the industry as a whole,” Facey said. He noted that it will take time for hyperloop to achieve scale and bring costs down, but once that is achieved, “it will primarily disrupt two freight markets only, air freight and surface expedited freight.”
Chris Facey believes that the air freight business is the most vulnerable to disruption because hyperloop “ostensibly could move as much freight as rail but at the speed of an air freight shipment.” However, the industry disruption doesn’t stop there.
“Civilian airlines are also in the freight game and they will be affected similarly as they will likely lose out on much of these additional shipments/revenue,” he added.
Facey predicts that immediate adoption of hyperloop cargo service will be delayed by R&D, regulation, insurance, construction, and other factors. In order to gain access to commercial freight markets, hyperloop startups will need to build entirely new infrastructure. As they try to construct it, the companies may encounter red tape, particularly if their project is displacing current infrastructure or civilian areas.
In addition to these government-related challenges, the hyperloop companies will have to win over public trust. Due to the fact that hyperloop cargo transport would be a new and different service, operators and customers may have initial doubts. Customers will need to be reassured that their cargo will arrive on time and intact.
If such concerns arise, they might turn out to be warranted. The acceleration and deceleration of hyperloop capsules and 760 mph top speeds could cause vibration and shifting of cargo, according to Facey. Additionally, the magnetization of the tunnels and cars could damage some types of cargo.
Insuring the cargo would be expensive. Fortunately, Facey noted, “Insurance costs should come down over time as the service develops and eventually be lower because there is less human intervention, and fewer things can ostensibly go wrong in an evacuated tunnel.”
Facey also noted that there are many unknowns when it comes to the design elements of hyperloop.
“How will containers be transported? Will freight be loaded on pallets then onto cargo containers at a hyperloop port like an airport? Or will they be direct loaded on the containers like rail or ocean freight?” Facey wondered, as he tried to envision this nascent technology. “Since they eventually will have to be transported over the road, containers will likely be the same outside profile as current containers but rounded on the top. Perhaps current containers will be retro-fitted to accommodate these containers inside them and reduce handling and touches. Perhaps a new system entirely will need to be developed.”
Presuming that truck drivers are not replaced by autonomous vehicles, as Elon Musk has predicted they will be, Hyperloop may still leave some jobs for drivers.
“Hyperloop will require both ‘first mile’ pickup and ‘final mile’ deliveries for all shipments. This creates more sustainable, healthy jobs for truck drivers that allow them to stay local and possibly see their families every once in a while,” said Facey.
Facey’s speculation makes it obvious that a working Hyperloop system would impact a diverse range of businesses, in ways that are not readily apparent. Warehouses could be built farther off-site, at a much lower cost. Currently, warehouses are strategically placed near the largest markets. Although hyperloop companies will still need to actively manage their operations and sell their services, Facey believes that freight transport via hyperloop would produce a significant impact.
“The ripple effect on businesses will allow them to even further utilize ‘just-in-time’ processes where truckload scale goods can be delivered at air freight transit times and at truckload costs,” said Facey. “This changes the decision timeline, the supply chain cost (both time and money), the amount of time to get from lab to factory floor and then into customers’ hands. It has wide-ranging implications all around. Hyperloop transportation is rail service at the speed of air freight.”
David Pring-Mill is a writer and filmmaker. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The National Interest, openDemocracy, and elsewhere. Follow him online: twitter.com/davesaidso