Abstract

The modern society’s continuous increasing mobility requirements have encouraged new transportation technological platforms. The so called Hyperloop concept, also described as the fifth mode of transport (rather than road, rail, water and air) for both passenger and/or freight) is supported on the idea of a pod like vehicle, running in a near vacuum environment (inside tubes) at near sonic speeds, higher than current air transport ones. This technological approach has played a prominent role in the modern transport scenario, with a potential to offer high service levels, associated with high speed, reliability and weather operational flexibility, as well as reduced environmental footprint and costs. This groundbreaking technological concept, albeit revolutionary, can not be seen as a novelty, with previous precursors being proposed in the last century. However, the concept has been reintroduced in 2012 with updated technologies, in an open sourced format, by the acknowledged entrepreneur Elon Musk, to instigate further improvement/development among interested companies worldwide, focused on its exploration on a commercial scale in the near future.

The Hyperloop concept is envisioned to compete with both the High Speed Rail (HSR) and Maglev services, in the 160–640 km (100–400 mi) range, as well as air transport, for up to 1,000 km (625 mi) range, with alleged both environmental and cost advantages over their competitors. However, despite the technology’s high performance potential, given its multidisciplinary feature (sonic/high speed, near vacuum, linear motor propulsion, electric power storage, pod environment maintenance/cooling, air quality control, transport capacity, among others) and its inherent current low maturity from both the engineering, operational and cost perspectives, there are several major technological, regulatory, planning, financial and environmental challenges to be addressed, prior to reach the commercial service status. In this context, it is currently required a huge research effort to figure out technological barriers, followed by prototype tests, to set up the safety and operational requirements. Work is current under way, with a huge research effort (from both the academy and the industry) focused on basic technological concepts, as well as some prototype tests (currently unmanned) driven to test the specific main technological approaches in a real world condition.

Given its revolutionary feature, Hyperloop technology is seemed as both ambitious and controversial by the general public and transport experts, with some optimistic bets in its medium term revolutionary role in the passenger transport market, focused on some niche segments currently serviced by the rail mode, as well as other skeptical bets in its restricted role to the freight market, given some inherent safety issues. This work is supposed to present a review (supported on the current available technical literature) of the groundbreaking Hyperloop technology concept and its potential to fill some specific rail niche markets, in both passenger and/or freight segments, with an assessment of the main technology’s hurdles/bottlenecks status and their perspectives, from a technological, environmental and cost focus, followed by a snapshot of some potential Hyperloop project candidates.

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