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Economics, Not Technology, Pose the Largest Barriers to Building the Hyperloop

Lux Research

Lux Research predicts the first passenger-carrying high-speed Hyperloop projects will begin operation no earlier than 2040

BOSTON, MA, APRIL 14, 2020 – With climate change driving an urgent need to decarbonize, the transportation industry, which according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) accounts for 24% of direct CO2 emissions from fuel combustion, is under intense pressure. Finding low-carbon long-range transit alternatives to conventional rail and aviation is a focal point, leading to increased interest in developing the Hyperloop.

“Despite the considerable amount of hype and attention Hyperloop has received and the potentially important role it could play in decarbonizing long-range transit, the concept remains more or less unproven, and serious questions remain about its economic feasibility,” says Lux Research Senior Analyst Christopher Robinson. In its new report, “Analyzing the Technical Barriers to Realizing the Hyperloop,” Lux Research addresses two major questions: 1) Is the Hyperloop concept technically feasible, and 2) is it cost-effective?

Lux has found that, while the Hyperloop concept is technically feasible, it will require significant development to become cost-effective. The Hyperloop differs from conventional rail because it operates in a vacuum system that reduces aerodynamic drag, thus enabling higher speeds and greater energy efficiency. There are four main design elements creating technical challenges with the Hyperloop: pillar and tube design, pod design, propulsion and levitation of the pods, and station design.

Lux Research found that pod design is the fastest-growing area for Hyperloop patent activity, with a focus on improving comfort and performance. Customer comfort is important due to the compact, enclosed spaces with no windows, which can increase the likelihood of customers getting sick. Optimizing pod performance is key to minimizing drag and reducing costs because pod design choices have a significant impact on tube design and aerodynamics. Propulsion and levitation systems have the least patent activity, in part due to the fact that Hyperloop will likely adapt magnetic levitation, or maglev, technology.

One of the biggest technical challenges will be identifying the optimal system pressure and minimizing leakage of the vacuum system, which, if higher than expected, can increase operating costs and reduce top speeds. “Selecting the Hyperloop’s tube pressure is the most important factor impacting cost, for both operational expenses and the initial capital needed for tube design and construction,” says Lux Research Associate Chad Goldberg. “Most Hyperloop developers are aiming for a range between 50 pascals to 250 pascals to optimize energy costs.” As proposed Hyperloop projects are seeing increasingly large estimates in cost per mile, and key variables in operating costs are unknown, Hyperloop projects are a long way from proving economic feasibility. Important indicators to watch for are development of high-speed and full-scale test tracks and government support, both financially and in developing Hyperloop regulations. Based on its analysis, Lux Research predicts the first passenger-carrying high-speed Hyperloop projects to begin operation no earlier than 2040.

For more information, you can download and read the executive summary of Lux’s report here.


- Executive Summary: Analyzing the Technical Barriers to the Hyperloop (Free Download)

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