Is Missouri ready for 700 mph hyperloop commutes?

Marco della Cava, USA TODAY Published 3:00 p.m. ET Jan. 30, 2018 | Updated 5:30 p.m. ET Jan. 30, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO — Commuters in Missouri face the prospect of trading their grinding highway slog for a 700-mph hyperloop that is still in testing and would carry high-speed rail type prices.

A public-private partnership of Missouri scientists, builders and regulators announced Tuesday that it would study whether the Elon Musk-inspired transportation system — where levitating pods cruise inside vacuum-sealed tubes — could be right for the state's congested I-70 corridor between Kansas City and St. Louis.

The study will be conducted by Missouri engineering firm Black & Veatch, the University of Missouri and Virgin Hyperloop One, one of a handful of hyperloop companies pursuing the technology. Last fall, Virgin Hyperloop One announced a similar study with officials in Colorado. Most of its other feasibility studies are with consortiums in Europe, Russia and the Middle East.

"We've zeroed in on a route where the government owns the right of way, so we can really push hard to reimagine I-70 for the future," Dan Katz, Virgin Hyperloop One's director of public policy, told USA TODAY. "We'll be looking at infrastructure along the interstate, the economic demand of the project, the ridership model and all the regulatory issues."

Katz says that while federal officials ultimately will determine whether the hyperloop system is safe enough for both passenger and cargo transportation, Missouri state officials "will have the say when it comes to right of way issues, environmental impact and permitting." The study will take between six and nine months.

Virgin Hyperloop One currently is testing its tech at a private facility in the Nevada desert. Its most recent milestone was notched in December, when its pod reached 240 mph. On long straight stretches, hyperloop pods should be able to race along at around the speed of sound.

While small scale tests reveal the tech works, deploying it on stretches that extend hundreds of miles has yet to be tried. The system gets both its speed and cost-effectiveness from the tight vacuum seals of its tubes, which allow magnetically levitated pods carrying people and goods to scoot through their frictionless environment.

The tubes carrying the pods could either be built above ground on columns alongside a current highway corridor, or potentially placed underground. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Musk, who drew up plans for hyperloop in 2013, recently announced that his new drilling startup, The Boring Company, is exploring tunneling along the northeast U.S. corridor.

Musk's tunnel-based transportation system differs from Virgin Hyperloop One, in that cars are loaded onto platforms that accelerate to more than 100 mph. As Musk laid out, Hyperloop systems are aimed more at long stretches such as the 300-mile run between San Francisco and Los Angeles, a five-hour drive that a pod theoretically could tackle in around 30 minutes.

The new Missouri study allows state officials to explore transportation options for the future without breaking the bank. "We are especially pleased that the private sector is taking the helm and MODOT (Missouri Department of Transportation) will be able to participate without using Missouri taxpayer dollars," Michael DeMers, MODOT's director of Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding, said in a statement.

A map showing the proposed route for a Virgin Hyperloop One system running between major Missouri cities as well as in area suburbs.

Virgin Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies both are pursuing engineering solutions to make hyperloop a reality. To date, the former appears to have made the biggest strides towards a proof of concept.

The company made news last year when it announced a naming-rights level investment by Virgin Group founder and transportation adventurer Richard Branson. In December, it landed $50 million from Cyprus-based Caspian Venture Capital and Dubai-based DP World, bringing its total money raised to nearly $300 million since the company's 2014 founding by tech investor Shervin Pishevar and ex-SpaceX engineer Brogan BamBrogan. Pishevar recently resigned from the company after he was accused of sexually harassing several women, which he denied.

Pishevar and BamBrogan ultimately parted ways in a flurry of lawsuits, whose settlement led BamBrogan to launch his own transportation company, Aurora.

BamBrogan's vision is similar to Musk's in that drivers steer their cars onto platforms that then bypass clogged highways. "I have a kid and my car is loaded with stuff for him, so we feel that most people will want to stay in their cars with their things" as opposed to riding as passengers in tubes, BamBrogan told USA TODAY in a previous interview.

Aurora recently announced that it was teaming with Denver officials to see if the system can work in the Mile High City.

In December, Pishevar stepped down from  from Virgin Hyperloop One and his other board companies after the sexual harassment allegations. Pishevar has said he wanted time to pursue a lawsuit against Washington, D.C.-based Definers Public Affairs, an opposition research group he says fabricated a smear campaign against him. Definers is looking to have the suit thrown out on grounds that it has never had any official dealing with Pishevar.


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