CHICAGO — Suppose you want to go to Cleveland from Chicago: How fast can you get there?
A car ride takes around five hours. A plane takes an hour and 20 minutes, not counting waiting time in the airport.
Hyperloop technology, which involves a system composed of a vacuum and magnets to propel vehicle pods through a tube, could theoretically get you there in 30 minutes. You could leave Chicago at 10 a.m. and have plenty of time to tour the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame before lunch.
But first someone has to build it, and there are plenty of challenges ahead for this form of transportation, a smaller version of which is being considered for an express train between O'Hare International Airport and downtown Chicago.
A California company called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is talking with Ohio authorities about building the Chicago-to-Cleveland route, but still needs to figure out big issues like government regulations and land acquisition. It also needs to test real prototypes before launching people through nearly airless metal tubes at close to the speed of sound.
"The publicity generated by this project seems out of proportion to its feasibility," said Joe Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University. "The challenge of acquiring right-of-way alone could doom the project."
If it succeeds, however, the technology could revolutionize intercity travel, eliminating the need for many short-haul airplane trips, reducing distances between cities in a way that's cheaper than high-speed rail and cutting pollution caused by planes and cars, promoters say.
"It will actually produce more energy than it consumes, so it will put electricity back into the grid," said Grace Gallucci, a former Regional Transportation Authority official who is now executive director of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, the federally designated metropolitan planning organization for northeast Ohio.
HyperloopTT and NOACA are offering $1.2 million to finance a feasibility study for the project. Responses from companies are due Tuesday.
The idea of using vacuum tubes for transport is not new — a pneumatic subway briefly operated in Manhattan in the late 1800s. Such tubes used to be employed by businesses for document delivery, and are still used at many bank drive-throughs.
The idea of using vacuum technology commercially for transportation was revived in recent years by inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk. Hyperloop companies include HyperloopTT, Virgin Hyperloop One and Musk's The Boring Co., which is one of two contenders to build an O'Hare express train.
Musk has tweeted that the proposed O'Hare service would be "kinda" like hyperloop but without drawing a vacuum inside the tube, since it would not be necessary to get rid of air friction for short routes.
Other hyperloop routes are being considered in Maryland, Colorado and Missouri, Gallucci said.
Hyperloop consists of a passenger pod traveling through a metal tube maintained at a partial vacuum. Magnets cause the pod to move and levitate over the track once it picks up enough speed, explained Dirk Ahlborn, CEO and founder of HyperloopTT. It helps to imagine the way a puck floats above an air hockey table.
Removing air from the tube eliminates wind resistance, allowing the train to move much faster while using less energy, Ahlborn explained. Gallucci said the trains could eventually go as fast as 700 mph.
Ahlborn said the company plans to use alternative energy, which could be solar, wind or geothermal, depending on the route. He said the tubes could be above or under the ground. He said the advantage is that hyperloop can be profitable in a short time because it has such low operational costs.
"At this moment there's no rail line that's profitable, they're all dependent heavily on government subsidies," Ahlborn said. "That's one of the reasons why in most parts of the world the infrastructure is terrible."
Ahlborn said the company has been working on the technology for five years, in collaboration with 800 scientists, engineers and other experts around the world, most of them working in exchange for stock options. A technical analysis from the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland supported the concept as a faster and cheaper alternative to short-haul flights.
One reason Cleveland to Chicago is an attractive pilot route is there is already a toll road, and robust air and rail travel between the two cities, showing people are willing to pay to go back and forth, Gallucci said. It is possible that the hyperloop could be built around the existing I-80/90 right-of-way, she said. Additionally, the land between the cities is relatively flat, greater Cleveland is the largest region in the Midwest outside of Chicago and Cleveland has the NASA research center, plus aerospace and other industrial industries, she said.
However, a hyperloop train has not been tested on long distances or with actual people yet, and that will take time. HyperloopTT this month accepted the first set of tubes for a test track at its research and development center in Toulouse, France.
HyperloopTT plans to build two tracks, one at 320 meters (about 1,050 feet), operational this year, and a one-kilometer track (.625 miles) to be completed next year, Ahlborn said. It also has started construction of what the company says is the world's first passenger capsule for the technology, which should be delivered to Toulouse this summer.
Also this month, Hyperloop TT signed a deal to build the first commercial hyperloop system of 10 kilometers between Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Ahlborn said he expects to have the commercial line up in three years, noting that it was easier to acquire a route in the UAE than it would be in the U.S.
"If a sheik says he wants it, it's going to happen," Ahlborn said.
In the U.S., Ahlborn sees the biggest hurdle as regulation and land acquisition. Gallucci said the timeline could be seven to 10 years, allowing time for the feasibility study, engineering, design work, land acquisition and construction.
However, hyperloop engineers will need to allow for plenty of time to thoroughly test the technology and make sure it is safe. Testing with a real prototype along real distances will be necessary to work out all expected and unforeseen problems.
One question is how to evacuate passengers if something goes wrong. There have to be exits in the tubes, and passengers need a way to breathe on their way out, since the tubes are nearly airless. Another issue could be the nausea caused by gravitational forces.
There's also a difference between what's possible technically and what's profitable, said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.
"The question is, can you scale it and actually run it as fast as they're claiming," Harnish said. "That hasn't been demonstrated yet." Harnish said high-speed rail, with conventional trains running more than 200 mph, is a proven technology that can handle intercity travel already in use around the world.
"Maglev" trains, which use sets of magnets for propulsion, is another form of technology that offered great promise. But they have proven costly to build, and only operate in South Korea, Japan and China.
Harnish said the interest in hyperloop demonstrates that people really want a better way to get between cities that are relatively close together, like Cleveland and Chicago.
Gallucci said such a fast connection would allow people to live in Cleveland and work in Chicago, or vise versa. "That would really open up the economy in the region," she said.
But Harnish said the hyperloop companies will run into the same problems high-speed rail promoters do and find that buying the land for it really expensive.
Schwieterman said the Midwest could certainly benefit from faster trains.
"In most parts of the world, however, a gradual approach using well-maintained railroads has proven to be the best way to achieve this goal," Schwieterman said.