We step away from the bright lights of CES 2018 to take a close look at Virgin Hyperloop One's full-scale test facility in the Nevada desert.
We're driving through the desert, about 40 minutes outside of Las Vegas and the hustle of CES 2018, when Hyperloop One Marketing SVP Ryan Kelly points to the facility on the horizon.
I'm heading to the Devloop, the very same full-scale test facility where Virgin Hyperloop One's engineers were able to test the high-speed transportation technology at speeds up to 240 miles per hour. This is the first time that press has been allowed at the site in over a year and a half, and we're about to get a close look at what they've been up to.
But from the highway, it looks fairly ordinary: a stretch of white pipe off in the distance, a smattering of double-wide trailers and some construction equipment. As we veer down the long, unpaved road and approach the facility, the scale of the full-size hyperloop begins to reveal itself, and I get my first glance at the massive tube segments used in the Devloop's construction.
After a quick safety briefing, I'm issued a hard hat, high-vis vest and safety glasses -- this is an active construction site with heavy equipment -- and meet Dr. Anita Sengupta, Hyperloop One's SVP of Systems Engineering. Much of what I learned on my tour of the Devloop facility was relayed by Dr. Sengupta. She comes to the team from NASA and helped land the Curiosity Rover on Mars. Her excitement for the project is infectious, and she impresses upon me just how much building a hyperloop is like building a spaceship at ground level.
We finally approach the loop itself. Devloop is massive. The tube is 3 meters (about 9.8 feet) in diameter and suspended a few feet above the ground on thick concrete columns. It stretches 500 meters from end to end. It's constructed of sealed sections of steel. Inside the tube is a magnetic levitation (maglev) rail system that runs from end to end, some cool-looking light strips, sensors and monitoring equipment.
During testing most of the air is vacuumed out of the sealed system, leaving an internal pressure of about 100 pascals. The air you're breathing right now is about 100,000 pascals. Inside the tube, atmospheric conditions are similar to those at 200,000 feet, as close to a vacuum as matters for purposes of aerodynamics. The vacuum equipment, which I was surprised to learn is mostly off-the-shelf hardware you'll find is also used in the steel and food-processing industries, sits near the loop's end in a dedicated room.
It takes about four hours to bring the Devloop down to this near-vacuum state for testing. Once primed, the test pod can be loaded into the airlock, which is then also depressurized to match the loop. The airlock only takes a few minutes to vacuum and allows multiple tests to be conducted without depressurizing the entire system. Next, a gate valve opens to connect the airlock to the Devloop, and the pod is fired down the tube.
We weren't able to witness an actual hyperloop launch for safety purposes -- plus, the pod was all the way back in Las Vegas. However, previous tests reached a top speed of 240 mph. A hyperloop pod could reach a theoretical top speed of 760 mph, but the current limiting factor is the length of the tube. The length matters, because Hyperloop One is limiting the amount of G-forces to make the ride comfortable for humans. You could launch and stop the pod almost instantly with up to 5 Gs of force, but the humans onboard wouldn't fare too well under those conditions.
Currently, a target of 0.25 G for acceleration and deceleration, less than you'd get from an airplane at takeoff, has been set and that means getting to and slowing down from 200-plus mph takes time with about 200 meters of the Devloop's 500-meter length dedicated to deceleration at the end of the test. For comparison, many sports cars can pull 0.6 G on a zero-to-60 run, so the Hyperloop experience should be a smooth one.
It should also be a quiet ride. With almost no atmosphere, there is no wind noise and no turbulence. With no physical connection between the pod and the maglev track, there's no friction noise or bumps either. From outside the tube, you should only hear a slight whooshing hum -- sort of like a Star Wars TIE fighter, but quieter -- as the maglev hardware vibrates. From inside the car, you'll probably only hear the hum of the life-support equipment.
Because people can't breathe in a near-vacuum state, a pod carrying passengers would have to be pressurized and sealed like an aircraft. Hyperloop One plans to use off-the-shelf aircraft hardware with the same safety standards and emergency protocols (like oxygen masks) as the thousands of aircraft in the sky today. However, while Hyperloop One is conducting full-scale testing, it's not yet sent a human being down the tube, mostly because it's unnecessary. Much in the way that the automotive industry uses dummies for its research, you can learn everything you need and gain more consistency from sensors and simulation.
However, we've gotten our first glimpse at the first-generation passenger pod at CES, when it was unveiled at Here Technologies' booth earlier this week.
It's pointed out that the tube isn't perfectly straight; it curves downward slightly to match the terrain of the test site. This is a cost-saving measure. It's much cheaper to build above ground and match the terrain. If necessary, a hyperloop could pass underground or through a mountain, but tunneling is expensive, and Hyperloop One would rather avoid it. The tube could also be curved, though the degree of deflection will depend on how fast the pod is moving. Hyperloop One wants to avoid subjecting passengers to high-G turns, which can somewhat be mitigated by banking the track up onto the tube's side, but the company wants to avoid that rollercoaster feel.
Earlier this week, Hyperloop One announced at CES that it's making its hyperloop trip planning app available to the public this year.
When asked what's the point of such an app when there are currently no hyperloop routes, Kelly stated that Hyperloop One is assessing potential sites domestically and globally and has set a goal of bringing its hyperloop technology public in 2021. However, it will have to exist alongside and integrate with current infrastructure in order to be successful.
Hyperloops can't cross the sea and probably won't be running transcontinentally anytime soon, so they'll need to integrate with other modes of travel. Kelly gave the example of connecting nearby airports that are at capacity with hyperloops to ease congestion. Imagine flying from Japan to Los Angeles, and then hyperlooping to San Francisco's airport in the time it'd take to walk to the next terminal for a connecting flight to New York.
"2021," Kelly says, "is closer than you think, and we need to start reaching out and having a discussion with consumers about hyperloop now." The app, built in partnership with Here Technologies, will be fully functional for multimodal trip planning at launch (even without the hyperloop element) and is, for Hyperloop One, a starting point for that larger conversation about future transportation.