Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Flying through tubes at 760 mph

You soon may be able to commute from your home in Pittsburgh to your office in Philadelph­ia in less than an hour, explains CMU tech guru VIVEK WADHWA

- 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 Washingto

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. Selfdrivin­g 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 selfdrivin­g cars and HTT’s shorthaul 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 railbased, 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.

 ?? Daniel Marsula/Post-Gazette ??
Daniel Marsula/Post-Gazette

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