Hyperloop – The Future of Logistics

The word Hyperloop has been much ‘hyped’ a term these days and is in the news for some time now. Beyond car, rail, water and air it is being considered by its proponents as the “fifth mode of transportation” and is getting faddish in logistics innovation today. It is new hope for the future of commuting. With the fast-multiplying global population and equally increasing traffic congestion, the demographic density across the network of roadways in the next 50 years looks quite alarming. Business processes will improve, automation and robotics will minimize turnaround time and man will have to find out means to minimize transit time drastically amidst exploding congestion. Hyperloop thus emerged as the latest concept in transportation introduced by the maverick innovator and entrepreneur, Elon Musk, who owns the twin companies SpaceX and Tesla. It is a concealed tube through which air capsules or pods would travel friction-free at a speed which is non-existent as of date.

The idea of hyperloop has its origin in vactrain or ‘vacuum train’ which is a concept train that can run at a speed faster than sound. Whether the reality of traveling faster than sound can ever be materialized is debatable, but what looks a possibility is that hyperloop might remove tube rails with its unimaginable pace and could even beat the speed of airplanes as well. Elon Musk was the proponent of its concept in 2012 which he further refined through a research-based whitepaper titled ‘Hyperloop Alpha’.

Interestingly, he has not claimed a patent for it but made it open-sourced to allow others to join the party to innovate upon the concept for a wider change across the globe. According to the concept, there is an air-free vacuumed tunnel which is closed at both ends and a pod travels along the tunnel in an astonishingly high speed. Imagine a speed at which the distance between Mumbai and Pune can be covered in approximately 30 minutes. It may sound absurd at the moment but even if it can shrink the travel time by 50% of what it is today, a huge leap in transportation will be achieved.

Often when I read about a new technology these days, I wonder whether I am reading Arthur C. Clarke or Carl Sagan. When I ponder upon how hyperloop might impact the future of logistics it seems much like that. California based Hyperloop One, the leading player in the domain which has now found a lead investor in Richard Branson has become Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO). It is working on an underwater infrastructure for freight shipment also. The company believes that artificial ports would be developed around 10 miles into the sea where the ships can be docked and the underwater hyperloop would be used to transport the cargo to the coastlines. Thus eliminating the congestion along the shores and develop tourism across the coastline. However, the submerged transit corridor would not only revolutionize commercial transport but I feel it can emerge as an alternative to air transport by connecting nations across the oceans. The VHO has already partnered with a global supply chain logistics major DP World to develop a new cargo brand called DP World Cargospeed, whose objective is to transit freight at the speed to airplanes with a minimal expense. Endeavour is on in making this concept more sustainable and low cost, through utilizing solar energy instead of electricity wherever possible.

India has also started claiming its stake in the global hyperloop portfolio. The VHO is working to develop a network across a distance from Mumbai to Pune. It is expected to get operational by the next decade. The main competitor of VHO, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has also proposed a route linking the newly born Amaravati to Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh. Elon Musk owned SpaceX, which is so far only promoting the concept rather than going commercial themselves, is organizing a competition since 2017 called Hyperloop Pod Competition to inspire innovation in high-speed pod transition through hyperloops for student teams. One of the main contenders of the 2019 edition was a team from IIT Madras called Avishkar Hyperloop. It was the only Asian team to enter the finals which was held on 31st July. As per the projection of Avishkar Hyperloop the distance between Chennai to Bangaluru which is approximately 350 kilometers, might take even less than 20 minutes. I will not wonder if fifty years hence the Indian railway system gets redundant making way for this new technology.

We are going through a technological revolution at the moment which is nothing less than a paradigm shift and I will not be surprised if later it is referred to as a period of technological Renaissance. In the end, I am reminded of a scene from the movie Interstellar where the protagonist travels through a black hole to save time, since time has no existence in a black hole. Well that may not be realistic but the way technology is transforming, much of what looks fictional today would become a reality tomorrow.