EP27 – Travel, part 2

 

Planes, trains and watery deals.

Last time on on Unsee The Future, we considered some of the fairly classic real costs of tourism, economic, cultural and environmental, and how much we haven’t tended to think about them much – not in the face of our convenient lifestyle expectations, we haven’t. We’ve been living our best lives with a lot of last century ignorance still cropping the phone camera lens tidily because, well, we have enough to think about and, blimey, we need some anti-stress sun. Some desperate escape from the system for a week. ..But only in half term, obviously, because we can’t take the kids out of learning numbers practice to meet people from other cultures, so we’d better take that second mortgage out after all, darling, rather than go to prison. Because: democracy and education. Or something.

But steadily, as we also saw, there are emerging means for all of us to more easily consider what the hidden costs of travel really are, and more of us are wanting to – so we took a first basic look at one of the biggest lifestyle implications for responding to the planet’s current crises: Personal carbon tracking. How to begin to think about the basic numbers of our real lives, coming and going.

As more and more implications of it unfold, so it becomes more and more clear that the climate crisis couldn’t be more serious.Yet our global system of trade and living and our expectations so built around it are impossibly intertwined between all possible geographic locations around the world – and vitally so for the diminishing of cultural ignorances and prejudices, and the spreading of knowledge. Spreading the burden of running the world potentially better. And you can’t do all that over a patchy 3G signal.

So, we left part 1 of our look at Travel, with this question. Is there not a much more techno-fun way to science our way out of our massive, clodhopping carbon footprints? When it comes to our addiction to criss-crossing the Earth in daily ways, like being hooked on the car, what new forms of actual transport could help us get clean?


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Header photo by Nicolas Thomas on Unsplash.

 

Come come, you scoff. Human ingenuity opened up to us all the wonders of the world, so surely it can help us do it better? Fight fire with, er, an afterburner? I guess? Brainbox our way out of whatever mess we think this is.

Well, go on then. I’m enough of an old modernist to like big bonkers tech a bit and a truly sustainable response to the demands of modern society wouldn’t start with the principle of just turning off everything and going back to the smallholding to eat raw root vegetables. Right? ..Riiiight? You.

Actually, a huge place to start – literally – is the oldest field of truly global trade. The oceans. There is a lot to clean up in the technology of life at sea, on which the human planet so complexly relies.

One of the biggest components of the travel emissions challenge is the least flashy – shipping. The UN’s International Maritime Organisation says that the shipping industry carries some 80% of the world’s trade and accounts for over two per cent of global CO2, as Reuters reports. So it’s one heck of a curve ball, on the face of it, for the largest name in the business to declare an aim to turn completely carbon neutral in the next thirty years.

“Denmark’s Maersk said on Wednesday it aimed to have carbon neutral vessels commercially viable by 2030 by using energy sources such as biofuels and would cut its net carbon emissions to zero by 2050” Stine Jacobson wrote at the start of last December. And he quoted Maersk’s Chief Operating Officer Soren Toft:

““The only possible way to achieve the so-much-needed decarbonization in our industry is by fully transforming to new carbon neutral fuels and supply chains.”

That means designing ships now, to take the place of their old fleet. And I can see why they want to; according to the company’s own sustainability report, Maersk’s container business accounts for most of its almost 35.5 million tonnes of CO2e produced in 2017 alone – to imagine that such a fundamental problem with the engines of your business viability will just go away in the coming years would be business-collapsing. But still, it’s a bold ambition, courageously articulated, given most old money reticence.

As the marine fuels and engines forum MFAME reports, the shipping giant is starting by piloting some biofuel mix in existing ships, testing a fuel blend of some 20% made from waste cooking oil, in particular on a hefty route from Rotterdam to Shanghai in one of its biggest vessels. They reckon the process will save 1,500 tonnes of CO2 emissions across the 25,000 nautical mile journey. As MFAME quotes the company’s own 2018 environment report: “The pursuit of solutions must begin now. We must have the first zero-carbon and commercially viable vessel on the seas by 2030.” And it apparently adds: “Efficiency gains do not solve the climate change problem. That can only be achieved through decarbonisation.”

Well okay.

Have you seen a typical Maersk ship? I’ve had them cruise past m’starboard a few times aboard sail boats in Southampton Water over the years and they are beyond moving buildings. They’re ridiculous.

When the Emma was launched in 2006, she was the biggest container ship in the world at 397.71m in length, a beam of 57m and able to transport 14,770 containers. It’s nuts. But today, this ship is only third on the stupidly big list. The Moller Maersk is bigger all round by a couple of meters… but also interestingly uses a heat recovery system to reduce its overall fuel use, and the company appears to claim it is some 20% better with its CO2 emissions than previous vessels. So they really are under way to sustainability… I guess.

You might like to know for Top Trumps’ sake that the biggest floating anything human made – if you don’t count Venice, presumably – is the Prelude Floating Liquified Natural Gas platform. And it is still broadly boat shaped, but the biggest offshore facility of its kind in the world at 488m long and 74 wide weighing 600,000tonnes. And still floating. (Because displacement is similar Basically Just Magic as the physics of lift under the wings of an Airbus A380. Science be damned – we made pacts with devils, I tell you!) And certainly if there’s one thing the oil and gas industry knows how to do it’s GO BIG. The biggest ships in the world that aren’t container ships are oil tankers.

For all these flat numbers, though, the shipping industry is less than futury. It seems less than especially capable of even tracking all these enormous machines when they are at sea and The World Shipping Council thinks an average of 1,582 shipping containers were simply lost at sea overboard every year between 2008 and 2016. Losing… what, exactly, into the oceans? All while crews around the world seem prey to terrible working conditions from their employers rather more than pirates.

The Boston Globe’s John Konrad thinks a tech revolution might be poised to unexpectedly help clean up some aspects of human sea trade.

“On the high seas, huge, unmonitored ships and underfunded coast guards conspire to destroy our oceans” he asserts. “Each lost ship and container leaks pollutants into the ocean, but without a standardized way to collect information, we don’t know the specific chemicals, plastics, and hazardous materials dumped into our waters each year.”

From oil spillages to drug smuggling to waste dumping, the sheer scale of the monitoring challenge for ocean business has proved impossible to keep consistent handles on for just about everyone concerned. And it’s not just dirty oil and unglamorous trade responsible.

“Even the largest and most visible ships are difficult to monitor once they’re at sea. Just last month, Princess Cruises acknowledged violating probation terms from a 2016 dumping case. According to filings with the Justice Department, operators of the 951-foot-long, 3,142-passenger ship Caribbean Princess dumped plastic into the ocean, falsified records, and dispatched cleanup teams ahead of inspectors to avoid environmental violations” he reports.

Even the US Navy, he suggests, makes serious gaffs, with collisions with container ships and lives lost as a result. Not sailboats. Container ships. Ruddy great things you’d imagine the best Radar systems in the world might spot before ramming them with a destroyer as happened with the USS Fitzgerald and the USS McCain.

Konrad reports on just how fledgling the marine tech industry is for data, quoting Marine Money’s chairman Jim Lawrence at its first ever US pitch day for startups: “Financial technologies are called Fintech, Medical Technologies are Medtech, but what do we call technology for shipping? Some say it should be Bluetech, others Shiptech, or Martech for maritime technology. Nobody can agree on even the name.”

Initiatives like CargoMetrics hopes to transform the high seas into a much more trackable system, using Amazon’s massive computer system to consolidate and crunch all available shipping data, the article explains. “GPS, cargo manifests, and satellite tracking” – it could all help to: “gain a global understanding of the movement of raw and finished goods in real time. This big-data approach to trade could transform both shipping and markets.” While other startups like Shipin Systems aims to reduce at-sea accidents by monitoring staff more effectively while other projects are looking at really basic things like ships’ lubricant levels – does nobody think to tap the gauge every now and again? For all the BIG BIG BIG thinking giving impossible seeming buoyancy to mind boggling shipping capacities, there seems much about life afloat that seems frontier-risky and badly managed.

But is it really so surprising? As Dame Ellen MacArthur put it, when she was in the south seas below Australia, round-the-worlding for the second time, gunning for the speed record: “The nearest people to me were in the International Space Station.” Our oceans are a big, untamable environment.

So addressing some basic seeming shipping industry-wide tracking oversights with a little shiptech cleverness could have a massively overdue effect on efficiency, it sounds tempting to suggest, planet fans.

“Chances are, before we have automated cars, we’ll have fully automated ships” Konrad reckons, in an AI-bolstered bid to stow the ropes of all this shaggy rigging much more safely. As every competent crew graduate or Practical Boat Owner reader will tell you, it’s basic to know your knots.

As Channel 4’s Dispatches found out a couple of years ago, though, it’s not like some basic problems aren’t lying at the foot of the gangway to the well-heeled cruise industry. Cruise tourism accounts for tons of waste and, as The Independent reported, the programme found that air quality on a cruise ship deck can be: “worse than the world’s most polluted cities”. Stand in the right or wrong place near the funnels of your average mega liner today and you could be breathing in: “More than double the average (particulates) in central London’s Piccadilly Circus” they measured. So, y’know, move your deck chair.

Daniel Rieger, of the German environment association NABU apparently told the investigation: “Ships cause not only greenhouse gas emissions, but also sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. ..Per day one cruise ship emits as much particulate matter as a million cars. So 30 cruise ships pollute as much as all the cars in the United Kingdom.” Per day.

Jeepers. And that’s just what it does to your nan. Never mind the waste, fuel, emissions and tourism infrastructure this industry needs to keep two million Brits alone supposedly enjoying the whale watching from the pool bar.

Surely this demands much bigger thinking than boring old economies of scale, no?

Might a – finally! – more futury design of large vessel look like just one of the proposals from Japanese research company Eco Marine Power, it’s Aquarius. An integrated tech design incorporating as much design thinking in the efficiency of airflow around its wheelhouse as in the striking use of EnergySails – rigid photovoltaic panels using wind in the old fashioned way while harvesting solar energy in the process. Neat, huh? Why has this eminently napkin-able idea not long been an actual thing already? It’s a vessel concept that also incorporates fuel cell technology alongside heat recovery and efficiency systems.

Sounds a lot more first principles in its thinking to me. And it’s not properly escaped the CAD system yet. Talk about shipping being slow.

Something that has escaped the drawing board into the seas, however, is a good last example to ponder here. Because the Energy Observer is currently over 13,000miles into a six year planned circumnavigation, attempting to prove that complete zero-emissions shipping is possible.

A modified racing yacht, the Energy Observer runs on hydrogen, which it extracts from seawater. While running its combined onboard systems also using solar and wind turbine energy. And it’s a ruddy interesting project.

As Jérôme Delafosse, expedition leader puts it: “The ecological transition needs to be seen as a promise for a better world. Through this exclusive Odyssey, we want to make people dream, to raise awareness, to prove that humans can live in harmony with nature and that the fight against global warming can open some doors to a new economic expansion.”

It’s a beaut’ of a hopeful test bed. Definitely worth checking out on the blog. But it’s still a very small beginning to some massive problems out at sea.

And, if we’re talking massive transport problems and trying to get back to first principles in design approaches and just thinking proper futury future engineering stuff… surely it’s impossible not to return to considering the massive pressing issue of aircraft? And, as every sustainability activist with soil under their nails would I am sure be clamouring to ask urgently with me: Where the bloody hell is the Thunderbirds hypersonic near-space travel stuff we were promised to get us to Tokyo in a couple of hours, huh?

HUH?

 

LIFT AND BUBBLES.

At more everyday scale, not unlike car use, humans are simply not going to say goodbye to the aeroplane any time soon, no matter how much you protest. In fact, it’s widely predicted currently to double. I mean, as National Geographic reported, China only put its first home-made commercial airliner into the air in 2017. Where do you think that trend is going to go? Yeah. Exactly. Up.

Alongside this sense of inevitability sits the positive facts that while the aviation’s industry roots may be organisationally in warfare, its notional ones are in exploration, and we do owe it the best views on the planet, alongside all kinds of connections and routes nothing else can sensibly provide us with. It’s a place to work that still has just a hint of the frontiers person and their responsibilities about it, I sense, and if, actually, you do work in flight I imagine you see it as just part of the future, right? But, if so, I’ll bet it’s increasingly bothering you about emissions.

Perhaps, it arguably should bother you, as an airline employee, a practical bit more. Enough to make a bit more noise about it. Because increasingly, it’s the airline industry that seems to be the only business sector not being seen to talk about sustainability. Not to its customers.

As Judy Kepher-Gona, founder of Sustainable Tourism Agenda, told Kojo Bentum-Williams at the Sustainable Tourism Africa Summit in Mombassa: “I do get the feeling continuously that aviation has isolated itself from the larger tourism industry. You look at sustainability discussions and reports… and you don’t find aviation in that discourse” she suggests. Speaking on the AviaDev podcast Insight Africa, she said “You look at discussions that take place around the world, you look at forums that are huge, like sustainable brands today – footwear and clothing and everyone who’s thinking about sustainability – I have never seen an airline among the sustainable brands of the world.”

Airlines are not making offsetting a matter of course in buying a ticket, nor do they talk about how they might do this. And, crucially, they are still built hell-for-leather on that growth model. When British Airways boss Alex Cruz said recently that airlines: “have to be thinking about flying in different ways” to reduce their environmental impact, and that they cannot operate exactly as they have done “over the last 100 years”, even going so far as to say it was: “impossible not to be affected” by the views of young people”, the airline’s chief executive was telling Tom Batchellor of The Independent all this: “onboard the airline’s brand new A350 jet, which features BA’s upgraded business class offering complete with lie flat bed and sliding door…”

The airlines are fairly wildly out of touch with reality in their planet business planning, it rather looks from a passenger’s point of view. Stretched out staring at the ceiling or losing feeling in your feet staring at the top of someone’s seat-reclined head in your lap. But imagine what the airlines could do for the conversation.

“Aviation is involved in moving millions of tourists across the world every day. It therefore becomes a very powerful medium for communicating the message of sustainability and also for demonstrating it” Judy Kepher-Gona suggests. “I think, in 2019, we should not be talking about whether airlines should be offsetting carbon for their travellers or not, it should be a given… A commitment by aviation would send a very very strong message to travellers, the millions that will see this message every day in airports, in airline seat pockets, in every bit of information that is given in booking – it could awaken every traveler that tourism has a responsibility to the environment.”

And she added: “At this summit (Sustainable Tourism Africa) one of the calls to action has been that Tourism must panic about climate change and its emissions.”

The notable exception here, I would suggest, is KLM. Because it has broken the silence. It’s Fly Responsibly campaign actually spells it out, suggesting you don’t have to always fly somewhere, and calls for: “All travellers and the aviation industry to join forces. To join us in making the world aware of our shared responsibility.” It wants us to: “Think about flying responsibly.”

Which is a remarkable breaking of the taboo. But it is still only a “think about”. What commitments the company will actually make to simply demonstrating such values, and the impact that doing it properly would have on its business model… that remains to be seen.

Amongst itself, if not at all to its customers yet, the wider aviation industry does claim to be trying to do one thing to – very very slowly – improve its 500mph business. And it’s technical.

Frank Whittle’s invention that powers flight tourism is utter ruddy genius. The jet engine. The gas turbine. So darned clever, we can’t come up with a financially and load-thrustingly viable alternative. So the big duopoly of airliner makers, Boeing and Airbus, are focussing their R&D on increased efficiency. Of which the flagship is the 787 Dreamliner, of course – made of composites, the latest version, the 787-10 uses 25% less fuel than other planes in its class, supposedly, and so creates rather less CO2. “A lighter, simpler structure, increases airplane efficiency, reduces fuel consumption and reduces weight-based maintenance and fees” as The Telegraph quotes a beaming Boeing. And this build technology makes for a roomier cabin with bigger windows for us customers. And it’s flying. Has been in its smallest version since 2011.

Progress. But creeping progress in the face of a raging stormfront of climate problems, you might feel. I certainly do. And it’s still essentially no real progress in culture – in business aims.

But if we’re going to keep talking the language of engineers for a moment – the chaps who keep us in the air – then instead of a 25% improvement at best, how would a fleet of aircraft that uses fifty percent less fuel do you?

That’s the confident claim headlined over the Aurora D8.

It’s a design developed out of an initial commission by NASA to MIT, now with Pratt & Whitney also on board, and it reflects a bit of a double trend in future-facing large airliner design – the shape of the fuselage and the way the engines work. Double in every sense, you might say, because the design’s double bubble structure is effectively two typical aircraft bodies stuck together, not simply giving a revolutionary cabin space inside but more significantly helping to make a lot more lift with the main volume of the shape. Making for a much slimmer wing profile and reducing drag. But also, pushed into the air, theoretically, with a: “potentially game-changing technology” as Steven Ashley reports for NBC’s Mach. Boundary Layer Ingestion engines.

“Inside rear-mounted power pods are electrically driven fans that provides propulsion while also ingesting much of the slow-moving boundary layer air that flows next to the fuselage. This low-energy air enters a front intake vent and is blown out the back, reenergizing the plane’s wake to cut aerodynamic drag.”

As Aurora’s team put it themselves, they expect us to move: “From the jet age to the efficiency age – the D8 aircraft will usher in a new era of efficiency and affordability in commercial air travel.” And it’s thinking that seems to be appearing across other designs from other teams at the same time, with lots of blended wing and hybrid body shapes turning up in CGs all over the place at the moment – including the back of that conshy KLM advert. Like something may be at last more fundamentally shifting in the basic economically viable aircraft profile we know so well in the skies, because it hasn’t had to change since the fifties.

“NASA’s New Aviation Horizons initiative, an effort to explore large-aircraft designs and greener technologies is currently unfunded and on hold” says Steven Ashley. “But the four chief contractors for subsonic concepts — Aurora Flight Sciences, Dzyne Technologies, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing — successfully completed their research contracts. One of the initiative’s goals is to craft airliners that burn half the fuel of current jets and generate 75 percent less pollution while also being much quieter.”

With the airline industry still expecting to grow, to the tune of tens of thousands of new aircraft over the next twenty years, as many reports suggest, all while the climate crisis surely changes the game around those plans, perhaps the airline industry is finally feeling the need to invest in significant change, at least in its tools. National Geographic sees the dawning realisation of the climate crisis as a pivotal moment for the industry, with the potential for greater damage to runways, planes, and, oh yeah, staff, was well as cancelled flights all over the place because of hotter operating temperatures and meteorological disruptions alone.

Perhaps in light of this, and a few begrudging commitments the industry has taken towards emissions reduction, Airbus, meanwhile, has been taking a few flights of fancy of its own, most notably with it’s recent Bird Of Prey concept, an 80-seater, 1,500km range hybrid-electric regional airliner of rather striking bio-mimicral design and a technical ambition similar to other schemes to cut fuel use in half. A concept which Andrew J Hawkins writing in The Verge thinks is fittingly named: “because this thing seems designed to prey on your deepest fears. The bird-like concept features multiple propellors, a rudder branded with the Union Jack, and something called “feathered wings” which I can’t seem to unsee” he says. But this “chimeric monstrosity” as he puts it may still have a useful role to play.

“Hey, if designing some weird bird-plane is what it takes to “inspire” the airline industry to ditch fossil fuels in favor of more clean-burning energy, I’m all for it” he says. “I’ll strap on a pair of Hawkman wings myself like I’m in a Terry Gilliam movie. But the adoption of hybrid and battery-powered propulsion systems in aviation is taking its sweet time because putting planes in the air is heavy stuff.”

And he’s right. The far future of aircraft is likely to be electric, of course. But we’re simply going to have to find a leap in battery technology to power it, because the power to weight ratio of stored energy in battery systems today is struggling to get anything but very light aircraft off the ground. Because good old kerosine delivers waaaaay more energy per kilo than the best lithium ion pack.

As Real Engineering puts it, the best batts currently can store about 270WattHours per kilogram, so to strap enough of them to a typical A320 shorthaul airliner to do its usual job would add FOUR TIMES IT’S EMPTY BODYWEIGHT. Fuel usually adds about 20% of it.

This blithely hasn’t stopped EasyJet committing to getting passengers into electric planes “within the decade” which might be the boldest move of all airlines so far. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIzDEIt2Q3o ) And it’s undoubtedly based on the progress light aircraft have made in going electric, with tech engineering companies like Siemens beaming about their compact motor designs at aviation airshows. It’s getting off the ground alright. It’s just that, while I can pull over at Fleet Services to grab a cuppa and a cup cake to recharge my budget EV equivalent of a light electric aircraft, a jumbo jet in the North Atlantic, um, can’t.

Perhaps a more lateral bit of really futury design thinking comes in the shape of the Mobula, however. And you’ll like this. Because it’s sort of a plane and sort of a boat but not quite either and it looks like a giant sea animal. ( https://designbuzz.com/mobula-hybrid-vehicle-bridges-gap-between-cruise-ship-and-passenger-aircraft/ ) As Design Buzz puts it:

“Designed by Chris Cooke as a Coventry University’s transport design project, the Mobula is a hybrid vehicle bridging the gap between a cruise ship and a passenger aircraft. Taking its name from a particular species of ray, the Mobula, which can launch itself out of the water several meters, the futuristic vehicle, or an Ekranoplan, employs the high-lift, low-drag aspects of ground effect by moving close to the surface, allowing a high speed, spacious interior and an efficient mileage.”

And it looks amazing. Lord knows if they could ever build it. But it’s a nice return to some clever thinking by the Russians, originally, half a century ago, that didn’t quite find its place back then. Could the Caspian Sea Monster yet stir into poetic and useful new life in the 21st century? It’s worth looking up, if you’ve not heard of it before. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwNItc_xDSQ )

All of which is a far cry from the other end of the futury aviation spectrum. The much talked about ambitions by many players to take us back to supersonic speeds and beyond, into near planetary orbit. Airbus won a patent for the Conorde 2 hypersonic aircraft back in 2015 ( https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/08/05/airbus-wins-patent-for-concorde-2-hypersonic-passenger-jet_n_7937884.html ) when Jaxa and Lockheed Martin were flashing about similar CGs too. But the Lunatic Ambition award probably still goes to Charles Bombardier for his executive ramjet Antipode – shooting for an eleven minute JFK–LHR trip at Mach 24. Twelve times faster than old Concorde.

That’s some stratospherically expensive pretzels.

Well. This is all very well. But, necks cricked gazing at specs in the cumulo-nibus, have we stopped to think that perhaps while trying to marry speed ambitions with planet death aversion business models, we’re actually looking in the wrong direction.

 

TUBES AND TRIBBLES.

Why are you still looking up when you could be looking along at ground level. And in the chief challenge of global travel, crossing oceans, there is one solution that might be a genius bit of literal lateral thinking emerging as a solution to air travel. Make it more like space travel. But along the ground. Or even under it.

Yep. The hyperloop.

The Hyperloop! Except… oh.
Look, the thing is. The hyperloop does seem like a radical bit of breakthrough problem solving – if a huge amount of the fuel, wear and time costs in long distance travel are really about overcoming air friction, why not just remove the air? Yeah?

Wait, What?

Remove the air. Y’know, so a feather can make it to Boston from San Francisco as fast as a bowling ball.

Years ago, the lovely first lady of Momo and I first dreamed about building our own house. Something we’ve never done, even after more than twenty years since visiting the Build Your Own Home exhibition at Earl’s Court, because we live in the popular seaside resort of Bournemouth and attempting to buy land where we actually want to live, rather than in a flood plane in remote Wales, would be like buying a complete second home just to knock it down. And she works for local authority and I have always been a hyper niche music artist and lifestyle slave. But at the Build Your Own Home exhibition, all those years ago, we saw a home vacuum system straight out of the Jetsons – a tube network to build into your construction walls linked to a central pump that gave you sockets around the house to attach hoses to for hoovering. A Heath-Robinson network of clear plastic tubes fusing Logan’s Run with Unigate Humphreys’ milk straws that, in the demonstration set-up at the show, afforded the bloke on the system stand the endlessly joyous opportunity to suck up a furry sort of tribble thing so we could all watch it SCHTOOOP! around the bends in seconds like a Wilf Lunn invention that the bloke on the system stand did repeatedly with all the wonder and excitement of a very over worked porn star while I finger clapped like a little boy, shouting: “AGAIN!” and feeling for my credit card, mere minutes after entering the exhibition. Well, I think this is the chief appeal of the hyperloop.

The principle is that if you get rid of air friction by creating a vacuum across a tunnel network, a hyperloop train running through that network on either air pockets or a maglev system could theoretically reach speeds of more than an airliner – crossing continents in hours, delivering passengers right into city centres, much more like a rail system. Rather than still having to catch the train or a cab into town after landing miles away from home at an airport. Nifty, huh?

Yeah, I can see you’ve got that slightly far-away tribble-sucking tube system look on your face. And a number of investors have, because after Tesla founder Elon Musk first demonstrated the idea, a number of other companies have stumped up investment and storytelling to signal potential futures in the technology.

The whole thing could run on clean energy and incorporate electric cars into the system on little EV trays, to seamlessly link a driving journey with an automated longer distance network of destinations. It’s fun, future stuff that sounds like it neatly side-steps the big problems of aviation.

I’m tempted to hope in it rather a lot. But I shouldn’t.

The US high-speed rail advocacy group American Rail Club paints a picture of a media obsessed rather uncritically with the hyperloop. Implying rather heavily that this is a bit silly and possibly even a bit fishy. Well, I mean it really would be if they managed to put a hyperloop across the Atlantic and didn’t build the tunnels very well. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. ARC firstly reminds its channel viewers that the hyperloop isn’t a new idea. Not by a remarkably long way it isn’t.

Alfred Eli Beach built New York’s first subway, thirty years before the subway – the Beach Pneumatic Transit. And yes, you heard that right – pneumatic. The whole thing was designed to run on cushions of air.

Traffic on Broadway was the pits in the late 1860s – packed with horses and horse-drawn omnibuses, you can imagine the dense atmosphere the more genteel theatre-goers had to face up there. So Beach took inspiration from London’s remarkably early Tube system – but decided to take it a step further and actually build tubes. Circular profile tunnels carrying cylindrical carriages – perhaps copying, Wikipedia guesses, another recent British idea of sending letters and packages through a pneumatic tube system. That money capsule sucker thing seemed just about the only interesting thing in a bank when I was a kid. And, tribble face lit up, presumably, Beach evidently channeled the same feeling and decided to simply scale up the whole experience to human size. And managed it. Building three hundred feet of tubeway track under City Hall and Broadway that supposedly had over 400,000 passengers take a ticket in its first year.

And to get around the status quo mob on the surface – city politicians apparently doing well out of the omnibus businesses up in the mud – Beach had the whole thing built in secret in less than a couple of months. Sounds a bit Musk to me.

The problem was scaling up the system beyond a surprisingly stylish testbed experience. The technology to slip train-sized capsules along on cushions of air was capability budget busting, and to scale up to anything more than a novelty ride would have been actual budget busting. Then the original Great Depression of 1873 happened, a European and American financial panic that hit New York’s spending reserves hard and it turned out to be the greatest resistance facing the Beach Pneumatic Transit, even above that of the old political guard. And, much as the public loved the idea, air-cushioned pod things were history.

ARC thinks this is going to be the story of the hyperloop. A curiosity that’s a lot of fun, but which hasn’t been getting off the ground to even its crucial inch and a half, not simply because of some pantomimic personalities involved along the way rather unproductively, but actually because of the looming idea-killer – it won’t add up.

“As a mass transit system, your main goal is to safely carry as many passengers as possible from point A to point B while making revenue” it says in its film: Why hyperloop will fail hard. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XFMIqiDWAc ) And it lays out some figures: “ The max capacity for a 28 passenger capsule Hyperloop system is 1,120 passengers per hour” able to be deployed from any given hyperloop station. They calculate a typical Airbus A320 operator could get twelve of them turned around in an hour which would put nearly 2,500 people on their way. Meanwhile, one Japanese N700A Shinkansen bullet train can apparently take 1,323 passengers on its own, meaning that during rush hour the bullet train system can: “Move more than 17,200 passengers one way.” And ARC quotes Lincoln Institute figures that suggest China can attribute 13% of its growth to its bullet train network, even though it wants to be seen to be investing in Hyperloop.

If you add in other factors, like the basic fact that no one has gotten test platforms anywhere near bullet train speeds yet, never mind seven hundred miles an hour in a successfully vacuumed system, or the fact that in practice the hyperloop will need massive turning circles built that will be as nightmarish a challenge of land acquisition as it will be tunnelling through California’s hills, to say nothing of the safety questions over sealing people into Apollo capsules with a hell of an escape system needing to be conceived to work anywhere at all in the system and… man. How will this ever get off the ground viably?

Interesting Engineering thinks: “Small scale preliminary experiments reveal the Hyperloop is entirely feasible and more so, it functions extraordinarily well. However, constructing a perfect tube hundreds of kilometers long capable of sustaining a near perfect vacuum will undoubtedly be one of the greatest engineering challenges in the 21st century.” ( https://interestingengineering.com/biggest-challenges-stand-in-the-way-of-hyperloop )

In fact, it looks at more of the geeky details of how to achieve and maintain even pressure in a steel tubing system, all without crashing the tribble at the speed of sound or having its turbine blades just explode through the train and… well. As they put it, for the physics of the system at the moment: “There’s no foreseeable solution… yet. It’s not impossible (but)… The Hyperloop is absurdly expensive, and moreover, insanely dangerous. The entire system is prone to a single point of failure that would be catastrophic to the entire structure. A simple breach and all passengers inside would perish almost instantaneously” they think. In fact, they point out: “The only comparable vacuum tube anywhere near the magnitude of the proposed Hyperloop is the CERN Large Hadron Collider.”

It’s starting to sound easier and cheaper to get to Mars.

Yet. The point of the hyperloop may not be the hyperloop at all. It’s really about the breakthrough in thinking represented by the tunnels.

As Zac Cataldo and Ross Tessien’s slight fanboy site Now You Know suggests, the revolutionary take on digging tunnels that Elon Musk’s Boring Company has developed could one day make that company worth more than Tesla: “Disrupting a trillion-dollar market.” And perhaps the extremely pertinent allied expertise of battery and EV technology could one day look like digging holes in the ground was Musk’s business plan all along. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8p0pC7vcpGg )

Essentially, the maths is based on a bunch of tweaks to the process of tunnel construction all coming together. Electrification of vehicles means a much cleaner digging environment and a much smaller one – no need for such enormous extractor units for NOx emissions and CO2 from fossil engines. And planning to place all vehicles on train trays rather than drive regulates the efficiency of the system with automation, all of which means the tunnels can be a lot narrower. Digging tunnels that take up a quarter of the volume of normally engineered traffic tunnels is a very boring tech headline but a bit of a financial game changer, they think. Helped by the efficiency of the machines they’ve developed for both boring and structuring tunnels in one kind of moving process, along with a few side hustles they think possible with some of the waste material.

Has Musk already dug a tunnel under the Atlantic without telling anyone, I find myself seriously wondering.

A factor in giving the usefulness of these new tunnels a following wind is the concept of the hypermile – blowing air down the one-way tunnels to seriously reduce headwind drag on freight trucks, and so reduce the cost to ship stuff down them. Competitive with trains, in fact – famously the cheapest way to freight but, in America, the slowest. And that includes competition from the pack-ant. Not withstanding the potential of the figures Now You Know quote about cost per mile of this new Boring Company infrastructure – toll plus electricity adding up to perhaps 15cpm as apposed to 20 or more for normal road fuel costs, so they reckon – or the fact that the car tray thing will carry passengers along at 120mph all the way, without traffic jams, two to six times faster than current freeways.They seem to think the tolls will add up to pay off the roughly $1b per 100miles construction costs within years. To say nothing of shifting a load more Teslas and Tesla Energy products. And all pushing billions of dollars out of the fossil fuel transportation industry into renewable energy.

But there is, I think another factor in play that simply helps all this seem possible. A technology that is tried and tested and working for paying customers in the real world that is not so far behind Hyperloop for speeds but a lot more buildably viable. As American Rail Club puts it: ““Meet the Hyperloop killer: The superconducting maglev. Japan has invested over fifty years and millions of dollars, that can seat over 1,000 passengers max per train and reaching speeds of 375mph, with more room to grow.” Theoretically, maybe making it up to 500mph one day.

While the tech is famously Japanese championed, it was invented by an American. James Powell, back in the 1960s.

As Loes Witschge reported for Delayed Gratification: “The idea of maglev came to Powell in the early 1960s on a Friday night. He was on his way from Long Island, New York, to see his girlfriend in Boston when he got stuck in a five-hour traffic jam on the Throgs Neck Bridge, which connects Queens to the Bronx. At the lab, Powell had been working with superconductors – materials, mostly metals, which dramatically lose their electrical resistance when cooled, allowing current to flow with virtually no energy loss. One property of superconductive materials is that when they are in this state of near-zero resistance they can create powerful electromagnetic fields – strong enough to repel objects as large as passenger trains and keep them suspended in mid air.

“I thought, ‘Gee, you have all these very strong forces. Why not just use this to levitate something that can travel very fast without contact to the ground’,” says Powell. “The idea happened right on that bridge.”” ( https://www.slow-journalism.com/from-the-archive/train-of-thought )

Of course, standard rail as an industry has had a big set back in the 20th century in America, where Hyperloop and high speed rail enthusiasts as well as Elon Musk are planning to start up the travel future. The car lobby famously curtailed investment in trains with the expansion of the freeway network in the 50s and 60s. I think it might have felt like a feeding frenzy for auto industry leaders then – the car was unstoppable. Meaning that today there is effectively no high speed rail whatsoever in the USA – laughable sounding compared to Europe and Asia. And in California, where they have broken ground on trying to rectify this for a stretch up the coast, there’s a huge question mark over how it will ever find funding to get finished.

“There’s a lot of forces in America that really don’t want to see rail become our major mode of transportation,” claims Andy Kunz, President and CEO of US High Speed Rail Association. “Especially because it will affect passenger numbers on airplanes, it’ll affect the use of autos. So you have the politics, the message shaping and then the straight advertising and all three of those coordinate and work together to keep America focussed on cars and not focussed on rail.” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qaf6baEu0_w )

Yet. Could the forces of workable economics ally with the fearsome forces of the climate crisis to crack the asphalt on the old ways of doing things in America? And so much further afield.
Could the right buildable tunnels, with the right train system, potentially reshape the more serious miles we expect to be taking all around the world?

Maybe. Perhaps hopefully. But this last word is the giveaway – expect. Is the real challenge to our travel hopes in the future not about mega structures and massive engineering plans, unstoppable as they seem. Is the real key to adjusting the human planet to more sustainable travel the same as all sustainability challenges in the age of endless growth consumerism – the challenge of changing our expectations?

 

NEXT TIME ON UNSEE THE FUTURE:

..is all about The Hopey-Changey Bit, in part three.

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