UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — The 100-mile desert road linking Dubai and Abu Dhabi is long, dusty and often very, very crowded.
With some 4,000 vehicles making the trip each day, the slog easily lasts two hours. But in a few years, passengers and cargo might be able to traverse the Arabian sands in a mere 12 minutes.
That’s if Dubai officials successfully implement a hyperloop transportation system — a futuristic concept that would pack customers and cargo into capsules and quietly shoot them through a pipeline at nearly the speed of sound.
The line would be the first of its kind in the world and, potentially, a transportation game- changer.
First outlined in a design by Tesla and SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk in 2013, the technology is already being considered as both a possible complement and competitor to cars, trucks, trains and airlines at sites around the world. In April, teams from across the country converged in Washington, D.C., to present potential hyperloop routes.
Most frequently, it’s mentioned as a mass-transit solution for commuters. But the plans will likely be developed first as a long-haul delivery system, experts said — though only if it overcomes some fundamental flaws first.
“There’s a whole host of issues that haven’t really been grappled with — connecting cities several hundreds of miles apart is a tremendous investment in infrastructure,” said Eric Jessup, co-director of the Freight Policy Transportation Institute at Washington State University. “We’re still a pretty long ways away from this coming to realization.”
In a way, hyperloop has long existed in miniature. Remember the pneumatic tubes at the local bank or office building? Decades ago, they would help distribute papers and parcels that were packed into capsules and dispatched to different floors.
Hyperloop is basically a much more advanced version. Musk calls it “a cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table.”
Point A and Point B are connected by a low-pressure vacuum tube fitted with a magnetic levitation system, like the kind used for bullet trains. The cargo is loaded into capsules, which are then gradually accelerated through the tube using electric propulsion. The aerodynamic pods glide above the track, unencumbered by friction or wind resistance.
Hyperloop One, the Los Angeles start-up behind the Dubai project, envisions a glass module to house its human passengers. But freight requires something different, Jessup said.
“I don’t know how they’d move any kind of bulk commodity in that technology,” he said. “You would have to have much smaller weight and/or more capsules going through the tube.”
Hyperloop One Chief Executive Rob Lloyd has said that just-in-time manufacturing and an increasingly on-demand economy are major motivators for hyperloop development.
“I don’t think it takes much for us to recognize that our transportation networks just aren’t keeping up — they’re falling behind,” he said at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. “We see our supply chains clogged in ports and roads across the world, costing hundreds of billions of dollars in inefficient product and supply chain.”
Hyperloop One said it has raised more than $160 million since launching in 2014. The company said it tested a prototype propulsion system last spring and will perform a public trial at its 1,640-foot-long DevLoop lab in the desert outside Las Vegas sometime this year.
The company has also promised to have multiple hyperloop systems operational within five years.
Hyperloop proponents praise the system for having higher safety standards than a passenger jet, construction and maintenance costs far lower than for high-speed rail and energy usage akin to a bicycle.
Nick Earle, Hyperloop One’s senior vice president of global operations, said at a March convention in Abu Dhabi that the transportation system could help local companies reduce finished goods inventories by 25 percent.
“Hyperloop One changes everything,” he said. “We're committed to enabling disruption to create new opportunities in manufacturing, warehousing and supply-chain distribution.”
Even Anthony Foxx, the Transportation secretary under President Obama, said he quickly overcame his initial reservations about the technology and its “seemingly insurmountable barriers.”
“We have a responsibility not just to continue the conventional forms of transportation — we have a responsibility to continue nudging the future along,” he said last year at a SpaceX Hyperloop design competition at Texas A&M University. “Skepticism is the enemy of progress.”
But that doesn’t stop many experts from feeling wary.
Freight isn’t claustrophobic and won’t complain about the effect of gravitational forces, said Amelia Regan, a professor of transportation systems engineering at the University of California, Irvine. But unlike human passengers, cargo isn’t mobile on its own.
“Hyperloop for freight has all of the drawbacks of traditional rail and intermodal transportation — there will always be a last-mile, or maybe even a last-hundred-mile problem,” Regan said. “Trucks will still have to queue up to load and unload freight.”
Think of flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Jessup explained. Even though the flight itself takes far less time than the equivalent drive, the trip requires roughly the same amount of time door-to-door after travel to and from the airport, check-in and security.
Hyperloop has the same problem.
“Even if everything goes really fast in the tube, there are still these constraints, these inefficiencies in converting the load at either end,” Jessup told Trucks.com. “That’s one great thing about trucks: Once there’s a load on board, there’s point-to-point efficiency because they can go anywhere.”
These are likely the sorts of kinks Hyperloop One will try to work out in Dubai.
The city is a fitting host for a full-scale Hyperloop system. It’s a place of outsize ambition, home to the tallest tower in the world and a transportation department that has pledged to launch flying cars into its skies by summer.
Dubai is also a ravenous consumer of goods and commodities.
Driving the stretch between Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, and Dubai, its glitzier cousin, means passing a sprawling shopping center with a ski slope jutting out of it and hulking advertisements for amusement parks and Trump golf courses. Meanwhile, traffic congestion in Dubai strips the local economy of an estimated $800 million in wasted working hours, according to Hyperloop One.
The company and the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority — with help from McKinsey & Co. and Danish architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group — are evaluating the viability of the technology in the region. A Hyperloop system could also extend to nearby Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Dubai’s DP World port operator — the third largest globally — has pledged $50 million to help Hyperloop One conduct a study for a cargo track at its deep-water Jebel Ali port.
“The system is still fairly new and has yet to be experimented or tested on the ground and its safety certifications had not been issued,” said Mattar Mohamed Al Tayer, director general of the Dubai agency. “So it has been agreed to explore the feasibility of providing this technology in Dubai in future without setting a timeline for the time being.”
But if successful, Hyperloop One could potentially claim $12 billion of the $35-billion cargo transportation market in the Arab world, excluding short-haul, intra-city shipping and low-value commodity freight.
Hyperloop One is also looking into versions of the system in the U.K., Russia, Switzerland and elsewhere.
The company invited 11 teams to Washington, D.C., in April to showcase ways to integrate hyperloop into their transportation networks. The teams — representing 35 U.S. metropolitan areas — proposed hyperloop lines ranging from 64 miles in the Boston region to 1,152 miles running from Cheyenne, Wyo., to Houston.
Competitor Hyperloop Transportation Technologies — a Playa Vista, Calif., start-up that says it has raised more than $100 million — said in March that it is being backed by private investors to conduct a feasibility study for a hyperloop system in Indonesia.
The company said it is also working on a route from Slovakia to the Czech Republic and is building a research and development center in Toulouse, France.
Together, these proposals suggest a sort of urban melding, making regional hubs so easily accessible that they essentially merge into supercities. The technology, Hyperloop One Chief Executive Lloyd said, “redefines a region of economic power.”
But plenty of people profess hyperloop to be a pipe dream — at least for now.
Hyperloop One has delayed its full-scale system test several times. A feasibility study conducted by NASA last year suggested that hyperloop is being tested first on freight “perhaps because of the (likely accurate) perception that it will be less risky to prove the technology on cargo than on passengers.”
Researchers said the economic case will be tricky. Hyperloop’s target market is likely the same clientele that currently uses air freight, which has the benefit of vast hub-and-spoke networks.
“It would take a massive investment in a hyperloop network to create the same coverage, and the value of incremental time savings over air would likely be small,” researchers wrote, adding that cost estimates swing wildly from $17 million to $64 million per mile.
But Regan said hyperloop construction will be more expensive than most people think, especially in the U.S., where construction would likely rely on private funding but require a convoluted hodgepodge of federal, state and local regulatory approvals and land-rights scuffles.
“I just don’t know what existing freight problems this solves,” Regan told Trucks.com. “Logistics managers have shown over and over again that well-managed supply chains can make up for lack of speed in the longest leg traveled.”