Hyperloop: Not Just For People

The most exciting thing about Hyperloop is not its name.1 It’s not its sweet route from Los Angeles to San Francisco. It’s not even its creator, Elon Musk, the famed Space-X-Tesla guru.

It’s groceries.

It’s fresh oranges from California to Seattle in under an hour. It’s same-day deliveries driven by solar-powered near-vacuum tubes.2 It’s carrying packages cross-country without the limitations of traffic or time.3

The power of Hyperloop isn’t in people. It’s in products.

It’s George Medhurst’s idea for atmospheric railways (circa 1812) blended with underground pneumatic tube mail (circa 1890), mashed with Amazon and Zappos (circa 1994, 1999) and my irrational need to hold the shoes I just bought online (circa within the next 45 minutes, please).

Hyperloop, whose plans were released on Monday night, is part air hockey table, part elevated train. The diagrams invoke visions of the Large Hadron Collider only instead of accelerating particles down the track, it’s reclined businessmen, commuting 900 miles across the valleys of California at the price of $20 a ride.

Without the confines of the human body and aided by current city infrastructure for deliveries, products have the ability to showcase the true muscle of Hyperloop. If we can send wine from NorCal to SoCal or better yet, ship transplant body organs or confidential non-electronic files, wouldn’t that be reasonably indicative of the revolutionary power of this “fifth mode of transportation?”

An abandoned organ package. Courtesy Brady Wahl.

An abandoned organ package. Courtesy Brady Wahl.

For instance, according to a recent Johns Hopkins study, organ transplants from donors across the country are just as safe as transplants from the clean room next door. It wasn’t until 2007 that this even became the norm. According to the study:

The kidneys in Segev’s study traveled an average distance of 792 miles, with a range of less than one mile to 2,570 miles. On average, they spent an average of 7.6 hours outside the body, with a range of 2.5 to 14.5 hours. Nearly 13 percent of the organs were transported by motor vehicle, while roughly 87 percent were transported by air.

Try less than an hour outside the body for 900 miles, by skyway.

Musk is predicting a prototype by 2029, and at a tenth of the cost of high speed rail (still coming in at $6 billion), he seems to find lunacy in the idea of investing in trains when Hyperloop is now tipping toward reality. So prototype with lungs and hearts and kidneys. Send necessary, pragmatic objects through the tubes or risk making it the next Segway. Or worse, the next Shweeb.

Even magnetically-levitated trains (called maglevs) have considered freight to people, like James Jordan’s MAGSTAR which claims $0.05 per mile for freight compared to the truck costs of $0.10. Given Hyperloop’s use of solar panels to power the transport and that 90% of the ride is spent coasting, costs are expected to be similarly low.

But these are all thoughts of a non-economist. And honestly, the problem I’m most interested in is not the low pressure of the tubes or the probability of earthquakes, but rather the noise created by the Hyperloop. According to Musk,

“With a high enough altitude and the right geometry, the sonic boom noise on the ground would be no louder than current airliners, so that isn’t a showstopper.”

The speed of sound at sea level is 761 mph. Assuming these capsules travel at Musk’s predicted speed, 800 mph, each one is breaking that barrier. The sonic boom has been compared to the sounds of a firework display. This isn’t a problem with single capsules, but given that Musk has also said, “Capsules could depart every 30 seconds, carrying 28 people.” And, “… the safe distance between the pods would be about 5 miles, so you could have about 70 pods between Los Angeles and San Francisco…”

Courtesy focusedcapture.

A sonic boom. Courtesy focusedcapture.

… That’s a lot of booms. And if it’s products, it could be even more. Furthermore, if we know that nocturnal vibrations (i.e. from a train) negatively impact sleep, what are our expectations for Hyperloop booms?


You can catch up on the rest of the Hyperloop news by reading the specs and Musk’s interview released in tandem.

1. The fishermen are really upset right now.
2. If you too are wondering what happens if say, the Hyperloop depressurizes while in transit and the backup batteries cease to work, it turns out the low pressure isn’t what will kill you – it’s the lack of oxygen. Good thing the Hyperloop includes air masks, at least if you’re a singular passenger. (You can also drive a car onto a capsule.)
3. There is also something inherently exciting about the idea of pneumatic tubes delivering goods. In 2011, the only McDonald’s to deliver food via pneumatic tube closed in Edina, Minnesota. It was. Amazing. The Atlantic agrees.

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