Hyperloop at 5: Sci-fi transport quickly becoming more sci than fi

Five years ago, billionaire Elon Musk open-sourced his plan for a supersonic train-like thing. Today it's still a work in progress.

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Eric Mack
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Hyperloop has been with us for half a decade now, but it's still hard to separate the hype from the reality.

In the five years since Elon Musk published his open-source concept for a supersonic floating tube-train, some very real progress has been made. But promises have also been broken, and the dream of a new revolutionary mode of transport remains at least a few years off.

When Musk released his hyperloop plans on the Tesla and SpaceX websites on Aug. 12, 2013, that PDF file was the sum total of all hyperloop development in the world. 

Five years later, tracks and full-scale pods have been constructed and tested. Competitions sponsored by Musk have seen mini-pods set speed records. More test tracks and hyperloop development centers are in the works. A handful of companies have signed numerous deals with governments around the world, from Cleveland to China, to build or at least investigate the feasibility of hyperloop lines connecting regional hub cities.

Hyperloop: Crazy or crazy awesome? (pictures)

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"During the last five years it has been exciting to see the birth and growth of the hyperloop industry, from just us to now a growing movement of companies, universities, and governments all developing hyperloop-related technology," Hyperloop Transportation Technologies CEO and co-founder Dirk Ahlborn said in an email.  

HTT grew out of a crowdsourced effort shortly after Musk's concept was released to become one of just a few startups seizing most of the hyperloop headlines. 

The vote of confidence behind hyperloop is significant. Musk initially said he wouldn't attempt to build a hyperloop himself. But his Boring Company has already received permission to start work on a line connecting Washington, DC, and New York City, with the backing of the Trump administration

I asked Musk's SpaceX for an update on the company's hyperloop-related projects and was referred to its pod competition website. The Boring Company didn't immediately respond to a similar request.

Fellow billionaire Richard Branson has also bought into the hyperloop hype, investing in another of the biggest startups working on the concept and slapping his personal brand on the company, now rechristened as Virgin Hyperloop One.

"Within a four-year period we have gone from a whiteboard in a garage to a global leader with close to $300 million in investment; a test and development site that is the first and only of its kind in the world and a roster of investors and client governments around the world," Virgin Hyperloop One public relations manager Marcia Christoff told me via email.

Virgin Hyperloop One and HTT have been circling the globe, signing agreements they hope will one day yield real-world hyperloop lines.

So far, though, little ground has been broken. In early 2016, HTT agreed to build America's first hyperloop as part of a new planned community in California's central valley. The aggressive timeline called for propelling the first passengers around the development as early as January 2019

But in December, the entire development, including the hyperloop line, was quietly killed when the developer gave up on the plans.

Watch this: See a full-scale Hyperloop test track

HTT is forging ahead with other plans though, including a deal to build a commercial line in Abu Dhabi in time for Expo 2020, set to take place in nearby Dubai. 

"We will be revealing our full-scale passenger capsule in Spain this fall and the world's first full-scale passenger and freight hyperloop research and development track towards the end of the year at our facility in Toulouse, France," Ahlborn said.

While interest in hyperloop has advanced quickly in the past five years, the technology still has a ways to go. In the real world, Virgin Hyperloop One is the only organization to build and test a full-scale hyperloop so far, managing to get it up to 240 mph (386 km/h) on a short test track. Much smaller scale pods have reached slightly faster speeds at the pod design competitions held by SpaceX.

"In the grand scheme of things that involve very complex engineering technologies of this scale, in which an entire of mode of transportation is undergoing revolutionary overhaul, five years is really not much time at all," said Virgin Hyperloop One's Christoff. 

Take a tour of Hyperloop One's Devloop facility

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Half a decade into the hyperloop era, the concept has leaped off the page and on to real test tracks. But it'll take an even larger leap for the nascent tech to get up to full speed and into the wild, where considerations like safety, financing, insurance and bureaucracy must be taken into account. Virgin and HTT both say they're working diligently on all these hurdles and making progress.

Making enough progress in the next two years to be able to open the first commercial hyperloop line in 2020, as HTT hopes, seems highly optimistic. But some powerful interests have attached their names to hyperloop, so it's also unlikely to disappear in that timespan. Unless, of course, the gap between hype and hyperloop proves impossible to leap across. 

For the record, we're still within Musk's initial timeline for a commercial hyperloop line becoming a reality. In 2013, when pressed, he estimated that a line connecting two major cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles could be up and running within about seven to 10 years

First published Aug. 14 at 12:55 p.m. PT.
Update, Aug. 15 at 7:30 a.m. PT: Adds response from SpaceX.

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