Your future commute: Flying through tubes at 1,200kmh

Picture the commute of the future: You live in Palo Alto, California, but work 560km away in Los Angeles. After your morning latte, you click on a phone app to summon your digital chauffeur. An autonomous car shows up at your front door three minutes later to drive you to a Hyperloop station in downtown Mountain View, where a pod then transports you through a vacuum tube at 1,200kmh. When you reach the Pasadena station, another self-driving car takes you to your office. You reach your destination in less than an hour.

That is the type of scenario that Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) chief executive Dirk Ahlborn laid out for me as we were preparing to speak together on a panel at the recent Knowledge Summit in Dubai. He was not talking about something that would happen in the next century; he expects the first of these systems to be operational in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by 2020. The Abu Dhabi government has just announced that it has been working with his company to connect Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, two UAE cities separated by 170km, using the Hyperloop system.

A proposal for this mode of transportation came from business magnate and inventor Elon Musk in August 2013 in a paper titled Hyperloop Alpha. He envisaged a mass transit system in which trains travel as fast as 1,200kmh in pressurised capsule pods. These would ride on an air cushion in steel tubes and be driven by linear induction motors and air compressors. He claimed that the system would be safer, faster and cheaper than trains, cars, boats and supersonic planes, for distances of up to at least 1,450km, and said that it would be resistant to earthquakes and generate more energy through its solar panels than it would use.

Straight out of science fiction it may be, but two start-ups took up Mr Musk's challenge to develop the technology: HTT and Hyperloop One. These companies have raised more than US$100 million (S$143 million) each and say they will have operational systems in three to four years and they have governments backing them. Hyperloop One demonstrated elements of the technology in the Las Vegas desert in May last year. The sheikhs I spoke with in Dubai were most excited about HTT's system.

Even if the Hyperloop technology doesn't pan out, the digital chauffeurs surely are coming. Self-driving cars such as the Tesla that I drive can already take control of the wheel on highways and are able to monitor traffic around them better than humans can - because their sensors enable them to see in 360 degrees and communicate with each other to negotiate rights of way.

By 2020, self-driving cars will have progressed so far that they can drive safely at speeds as fast as 320kmh in their own partitioned lanes on highways. In these circumstances, the commute to Los Angeles from San Francisco would take only an hour and a half - without the need to catch a connection to a supersonic pod. From Abu Dhabi to Al Ain or Dubai could take the car 30 to 40 minutes, door to door. In other words, Mr Musk's self-driving cars and HTT's short-haul Hyperloops may be competing with each other.

I'm one of those who would prefer the convenience of having their car come with them so that they can keep extra stuff in the back and be working uninterrupted on the commute. In any case, for longer journeys, say from New York or San Francisco to Miami, catching a Hyperloop will make more sense than riding in the self-driving car.

The point, though, is that we are on the verge of a revolution in transportation. For decades - actually, centuries - we have been dependent on locomotives and, more recently, airplanes, to take us long distances. The technologies have hardly advanced. The entire industry is about to be disrupted. Many of us will choose to take the shared cars and Hyperloops; others will own their own cars. But we will take fewer rides in trains and planes. That is why new rail-based transportation systems, such as the one that California has long been debating, are not sensible investments to make. By the time they are complete, our modes of mass transportation will have changed.

The wise investment to make will be in accelerating adoption of self-driving cars and in reserving lanes for them, and in building energy-efficient long-distance transportation systems that do not consume even more time, money and arable land than we have lost already. For distances in the hundreds or thousands of kilometres, we'd do well to explore Hyperloops and other environmentally sensitive modes of mass transportation. They may be far more cost-effective than laying new railways. WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2017, with the headline 'Your future commute: Flying through tubes at 1,200kmh'. Print Edition | Subscribe