Hyperloop – Elon Musk’s project, now venture-capital-backed, to shuttle passengers between cities via tubes at the speed of sound — is shaping up to be to the 21st century what the railroad was to the 19th century.
Both are visionary: one connected the coasts and permitted safe travel across the continent and the other could provide super-fast, efficient commuter passage between major cities. Both were rejected initially as the stuff of fiction: too theoretical to work, too expensive to build. Both were aided by the technology of their day, railways by the might of the industrial revolution, Hyperloop by the computer and simulation technology. And both, when the history of the 21st century finally is written, will be seen as revolutionary turning points in modes of transportation.
The U.S. railway faced many of the same challenges Hyperloop faces today. Its advocates struggled with questions of land acquisition. Transportation was a give-and-take between the public and private sectors. Ideas came before technology was ready to fulfill them. By the time automobiles became popularized in the early 20th century, however, railways dominated the landscape, covering hundreds of thousands of miles, thanks in no small part to government assistance in land acquisition and railway infrastructure.
Now, Hyperloop has many hurdles ahead of it. And it’s still early to claim, if at all, that there will be hundreds of thousands of miles of tubes dotting the landscape before the year 2100. But the spirit of the project has the potential to change the way we travel. In the future, we will travel and send goods more quickly between major cities, maybe going so far as to live in one and commute to another. Imagine the potential of a world where you can travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes!
Musk, for one, is not leading the charge in implementing the Hyperloop idea. After the Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO released his 57-page white paper on the subject in 2013, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Inc. — a JumpStartFund subsidiary that’s working on the project in a crowd-sourced fashion — took over. That same year, ANSYS released simulation examples that showed Hyperloop’s proposed methods – a passenger-capsule travelling with little to no air resistance through a tube at approximately the speed of sound – would work if built to specifications. Recently, another Hyperloop organization announced it had venture capital backing from an Uber investor.
The proposed Los Angeles-to-San Francisco route also might change, with some people citing Las Vegas as a likely destination. Others have raised the possibility of building outside of the U.S. all together, in Dubai or elsewhere.
What we do know is that simulation has a critical role to play in the Hyperloop’s success. Even the simplest physical prototypes will cost tens of millions of dollars to construct and test, not to mention years or decades of effort. But simulation can solve many of the design challenges right away, with virtual prototypes inside a computer. Many of the design questions that will arise in this monumental task can be asked and answered readily with simulation. What would be the best shape of the capsule? How much energy would be needed to operate the Hyperloop? Will the safety mechanisms perform as expected in case of emergencies?
Take note, engineers. You’ve got a leg up on those historical figures building the railways 150 years ago. There’s no end to what ANSYS can help you learn about Hyperloop before you start laying track, buying land and building costly prototypes.