The hyperloop is set to revolutionize logistics. This modern system, a hybrid between a train and an airplane, looks to transform freight haulage while limiting pollutant emissions and easing air and land traffic congestion.
Hyperloop technology is a mode of transportation under development that uses magnetically levitating vehicles inside a low-pressure tube to travel at high speed: the system aims to reach about 750 mph. To speed up the carriage of goods, the hyperloop uses innovative techniques such as pressurization systems, electric propulsion, and magnetic energy.
Due to its potential benefits, the hyperloop could be a hotbed for innovation in logistics. The Hyperloop Institute of Technology states that this new haulage system “is the key to long-distance sustainable transportation and a major contributor to achieve the GHG [greenhouse gas] reduction target set by the EC [European Commission] for 2030 and 2050.” But is this technology viable in the short term? While its feasibility on a large scale remains an open question, more and more projects and prototypes are in development.
Hyperloop applications in logistics
The hyperloop could solve logistics challenges such as shorter order delivery times or pollution caused by freight haulage. This technology would move freight at high speed between two or more logistics centers, reducing the impact of transportation on logistics. The loads would be placed in capsules that would travel through a tunnel at approximately 750 mph.
Hyperloop technology could establish itself as a low-energy-cost alternative for long-distance logistics journeys by trucks, freight trains, or airplanes. This futuristic method aims to revolutionize freight haulage by accelerating from 0 to 750 mph in record time.
To operate, the hyperloop prototypes create a low-pressure environment within a closed tubular system. This structure houses a capsule that floats by means of magnetic levitation technology. Through its propulsion with an electric motor, this transportation system is able to move at very high speeds due to the absence of friction and the virtual absence of air resistance. Even more significantly, it can do so while consuming low levels of energy.
According to Mario Paolone, Professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, one of the advantages of the hyperloop is its low energy consumption. “There is the possibility of optimally controlling the pressure in a hyperloop confined environment [...]. This pressure control can substantially reduce the energy needs for the operation of the whole system, thus making it the most energy-efficient transportation system for intra-continental travels,” says Paolone in the academic publication Design of a hyperloop system mockup.
Hyperloop and freight haulage
If successfully materialized, the hyperloop in logistics would replace long-distance transportation. Speaking to Mecalux, Paolone highlighted the sustainability that this technology would bring to freight haulage: “Compared to any other transportation system, the hyperloop for cargo has the potential to achieve the lowest carbon footprint per unit of transported mass. In addition, its point-to-point high-speed connection could be coupled with efficient dispatch processes.”
The hyperloop would not only reduce the environmental impact, but also speed up the carriage of goods. The academic article Hyperloop: the innovative logistic technology, published in the Journal of Road and Traffic Engineering, compares this technology with current modes of transportation. “Hyperloop has emerged as a superior choice to existing transportation systems since it is twice as fast as airplanes, has halved travel times, and has a cost comparable to aviation travel.”
However, hyperloop technology is still more of a work in progress than a tangible reality. In the future, this high-speed system could become an alternative to air carriage for sensitive, valuable, and perishable goods. The academic publication Effects of the introduction of Hyperloop on existing supply chains notes that the speed of the hyperloop “represents a good match to transport such types of cargo, especially considering the significant cost associated with air transportation as compared to other traditional transportation modes. In this context, the hyperloop represents a more economical alternative to air transportation.” The option of consolidating this technology as a substitute for road haulage seems less feasible for the time being. According to the authors of the article, “using trucks, cargo will be transported and unloaded at the hyperloop origin stations, where trucks will also be needed to load and transport the same cargo to its destination.”
Hyperloop in logistics: the future or utopia?
The hyperloop could entail a complete overhaul of transportation. But at what stage of development is this technology? Professor Paolone predicts that it could be a reality by 2040. “Technically speaking, the first commercial hyperloop cargo could be seen by the end of the next decade.” However, there are still doubts about its short-term viability. “The first main challenge is to develop and benchmark different capsule propulsion technologies. These systems have diverse levels of engineering complexity and energy efficiency that have to be thoroughly analyzed. The second challenge is the development of low-cost tunneling processes that need to be thoroughly developed and benchmarked in terms of performance.”
In a conversation with Mecalux, Jonas Kristiansen Nøland, an Associate Professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), points out that hyperloop technology is still in the development phase: “The call for proposals for hyperloop projects launched by the European Commission envisaged reaching technology readiness level 6 in Europe by the end of this decade. Ten years ago, when these hyperloop developers were starting out, they promised that, by now, they would have a fully functioning commercial system. But climbing up the technology-readiness chain is a bit harder in reality than on paper.”
Technology maturity levels are an international classification system that seeks to calculate the stage of development of a technology. The scale ranges from 1 (basic technological principles) to 9 (system tested in an operational and functional environment). Level 6 indicates that, within the next few years, one or more hyperloop prototypes will have already been validated in a relevant environment. Nøland, one of the technical evaluators for EU-Rail projects in the European Union, confirms the existence of a wide range of projects related to the hyperloop. “In the last decade, many tech start-ups have been created, and many feasibility studies have been published on this technology.”
However, Nøland concludes that, for the time being, this technology is more viable for transporting goods than for moving people: “In freight haulage, certification requirements are not as strict as for passenger transportation. When it comes to goods, you can be more flexible in terms of acceleration.”