GROUND travel at speeds faster than a jetliner for the price of a bus ticket? What was once the stuff of science fiction has now become the fodder of space-age technology.
It’s called Hyperloop, a passenger and freight transport system now in the experimental stages. It proposes to propel a pod-like vehicle through a partial-vacuum tube. It’s the brainchild of Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX and developer of the all-electric Tesla automobiles.
Hyperloop is sponsoring an international competition, inviting teams from anywhere around the world to design a comprehensive Hyperloop prototype for a city of their choice. It’s not an engineering contest; the technology has been developed. Rather, the teams must compile a commercial, transport and economic case for siting the world’s first Hyperloop system.
China, whose vast railway network is known worldwide for its speed and efficiency, is one focus of the competition. A student team at New York University Shanghai is designing a plan for a Hyperloop system between Shanghai and Hangzhou. “Giving the economic and political conditions, this is the best site for the first Hyperloop,” said Bradford Sunderland, a sophomore student majoring in economics and leader of the team.
Hyperloop proposes to move passengers and goods at more than 750 miles an hour, three times the speed of the current high-speed rail in China.
According to the team, Hyperloop would reduce the present 45-minute trip by high-speed rail between Shanghai and Hangzhou to just 15 minutes.
The team is one of 35 that have advanced to the semifinals of the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, which initially attracted more than 2,000 proposals.
The semi-finalists will present their projects to the US judges at the end of February, vying for the handful of spots as finalists.
Shanghai student involvement in Hyperloop began in the summer of 2015, when SpaceX initially launched a pod design competition, inviting creative ideas from university students and independent engineering teams.
The contest drew teams from both the NYU Tandon School of Engineering in New York and another from NYU Shanghai.
The NYU Shanghai team involved 18 students majoring in physics, engineering, interactive media arts, business, neural science, biology, computer science, humanities and mathematics. Team members spent countless hours studying how engines work, planes are built and cars are systemized.
Five team members devised an industrial design for the project, five produced a business plan and eight worked on engineering aspects.
Their work competed with nearly 1,000 submissions – including 120 teams from 20 countries. SpaceX eventually decided to merge the Shanghai team with the team from NYU Tandon School of Engineering in New York.
The Tandon School team took the lead on the pod prototype design, relegating some work to a few NYU Shanghai students.
But the Shanghai team didn’t stay in the shadows long. It evolved into what is now called the Shanghai Research Arm and entered the Hyperloop One Global Challenge to select a location for the first Hyperloop network. More students were added to the team.
“Here in Shanghai, we have a global network of students,” said Sunderland. “We are leveraging that advantage to help the team.”
Eric Zuo, a major in business and finance, was one of the new members added to the team. He is co-leader in charge of research on government and policy.
“I joined this project,” said the 20-year-old Shanghai native, “because I would like to see the construction of Hyperloop in my hometown.”
The team has focused on the social and environmental advantages of such a system in China.
It points to air pollution, urban sprawl and traffic congestions as reasons why such a clean and fast form of transport would be a plus for Shanghai.
The team quoted a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Science that predicts 300 million people will move into China’s cities in the 15 years to 2030, swelling urban population to one billion.
The team also noted a governmental plan, entitled China’s New Urbanization Plan, which was introduced in 2014.
The plan highlighted the need for mega-cities like Shanghai to disperse economic, commercial and residential functions to surrounding cities with new forms of intercity transportation networks.
It defined dispersal to cities an hour away from downtown Shanghai.
“One hour equals 125 miles on high-speed rail, which at the time of publication was the only feasible method of transport besides airplanes,” the NYU Shanghai team wrote in its proposal.
“With Hyperloop, one hour equals 750 miles. That would make it possible for people to work in mega-cities like Shanghai, and then return to live in satellite cities hundreds of miles away.”
The students first considered the Shanghai-Beijing corridor for the route, but eventually decided that the experimental stage of Hyperloop technology would be better served over a shorter distance.
Plans were already afoot, Zuo noted, to built a maglev train network between Shanghai and Hangzhou, but protests of residents along the proposed track, who feared noise and radiation pollution, caused the plan to be suspended.
Zuo said he believes Hyperloop will be more acceptable because it runs in tubes on electricity, which would be safer, quieter and more environmentally friendly. And, he added, China’s massive population would guarantee that such a system could be operated profitably.
Hyperloop would also be a freight mover, adding benefits to the free trade zones and industrial parks of Shanghai and Hangzhou.
Both Sunderland and Zuo admitted that collecting data for the project has been hard work.
“The information we collected would have been difficult to obtain in the United States,” said Sunderland. “And finding it in China was even more difficult.”
The team used Baidu, conducted field interviews entirely in Chinese and consulted experts from NYU Shanghai and Tongji universities.
The information was collated in Chinese and then translated into English, with meticulous attention to ensuring accuracy.
“Without this attention to detail, much would have been lost in translation,” said Sunderland. “This project has been a real education in navigating between Chinese policies and a Western audience.”
Even as a Chinese, Zuo encountered difficulties.
“The questions proposed by the Hyper Loop One Challenge focused on governmental decisions, policies and legislation,” he said.
“In China, the process of government decision-making is very different from other countries. And most transportation infrastructure here is owned by the state, while in other countries, it is built and operated privately.”
Sunderland was a freshman when he joined the initial pod design team. He said he decided to study at the new Sino-US joint university because China is “in the midst of its golden age, resembling the United States after World War II or Japan in the 1970s, with countless development opportunities.
NYU Shanghai sits at that frontier.”