What is the Hype about Hyperloop?

Blog Post Innovation that Creates New Value

When it comes to innovation that requires a considerable infrastructure, do you wait for the next big thing or use what is available now?

Recently while talking to a colleague, I mentioned that I could not wrap my head around the hype around Hyperloop. As revolutionary as it might seem, it is still an unproven technology which recently reached speeds about the same as the ones of traditional high-speed railways. I could not understand why the U.S. seemed to be waiting for this technology to finally build a fast connection between major cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles or on the Northeastern Corridor between Washington and Boston. If the U.S. were to build high-speed railways, those would be available in the next 20 years. In twenty years, will Hyperloop have lived through the hype?

My colleague asserted that sometimes it is better to wait to build the newest possible innovation rather than play a game of catch-up, especially if major infrastructures are needed to deliver the plan: a phenomenon called leapfrogging. Instead of catching up with Western Europe and Japan, the US would leapfrog ahead building an infrastructure that could accommodate a theoretical travel speed of 760 mp/h (1200 km/h). High-speed railroads top at a theoretical speed of 340 mph (500 km/h) with commercially viable speeds around 200 mph (322 km/h). The top question remains: is it worth the wait?

This conversation left me with a couple of questions. The first was: what is new in transportation? Hyperloop is the most talked innovation by far. The brainchild of Tesla-founder, Elon Musk, the idea is fairly simple to grasp. Two factors slow down a train on its way: friction created by the contact between the rail wheels and the tracks; and air resistance. How do you solve that? You put the train in a low-pressure, almost vacuum tube. Secondly, you make the train levitate over the tracks using magnetic forces (a MagLev train like the one in service in Shanghai or in construction in Japan). Seems easy enough and the idea can be traced back to 1909, but its application has proved tricky. MagLev trains, due to high costs of construction, have failed to take off and vacuum tube application (like pneumatic post) have invariably been put aside. Two companies are currently testing this technology: Virgin Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. Given the lack of friction, Hyperloop would require very little energy to operate, giving an advantage over planes and cars. More interestingly in the world of transportation are the resuscitation of commercial supersonic travel. For those unaware, until 2003 for $20,000 you zap between London and New York in under three hours beating the speed of sound. The famous Concorde travel proved to be commercially unsuccessful, but transportation visionaries are trying to revive the technology and bring it back and to more routes. For more information, you can look up Boom Supersonic or Boeing recent announcement of a Mach 5 (i.e., 3836 mph/6174 km/h) Jet. For even longer distances, Musk, with his SpaceX CEO hat on, has announced his company is evaluating the possibility of rocket intercity transportation that would connect any two points on earth in under an hour. Shanghai and New York would be connected in 29 minutes, for instance. A clearer picture of the future of transportation is starting to form, with Hyperloop/High-Speed Train for short distances (New York-Washington, DC; Paris-Frankfurt), supersonic for medium-long distance (London-New York), and interstellar for longer distance (New York-Sydney).

The second question I had was what is the correct pace of innovation? Should you wait, especially when you are starting from behind and, then, jump ahead with the latest and newest? Especially in organizations, one of the main factors is timing: can you afford to wait? Testing and disrupting the landscape, reinventing the industry, seeking that game-changer horizon requires a huge investment of time, capital, and resources. It needs to be complemented by another part of the business that brings in revenue, that is commercially viable, and available now. The risk of failure is high, money and investors running dry even higher, but it is thanks to those that are willing to fail time after time that we have been able to have huge leaps forward in transportation (think the jet airplane) and all other areas. Those willing to wait have given us game-changing innovations spanning from the telephone to hopefully commercial space travel.

I could not come up with the right answer on whether it is worth to have something now or wait for the next big thing. However, I discovered a lot just looking at and researching the questions on innovation and the next frontier of transportation.

Or maybe this piece is just a huge rant of somebody that went from covering Paris to London (470 km/290 miles) in two hours and fifteen minutes to covering Philadelphia to New York (97 miles/156 km) in one hour and thirty minutes.