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MIT Technology Review

Dubai’s Hyperloop Concept Looks Unbelievably Impressive

The idea of covering almost 100 miles in 12 minutes is tantalizing, but engineering and economics are realities that can’t be ignored.

November 9, 2016

Hyperloop One has unveiled a vision for a tubular transport system that it hopes to build between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But the company must still overcome some significant hurdles before it sends any passengers down its pipe.

The journey between the two cities, which is close to a hundred miles long, would take just 12 minutes to complete, according to TechCrunch. And in a concept video, Hyperloop One suggests that the whole experience would be effortless: passengers would be picked up from their home or office by an autonomous vehicle, driven to the Hyperloop, where the vehicle would be loaded onto a larger transporter, then fired down the tube toward the destination. Transit perfection, with no need for passengers to look up from a laptop at any point during the trip.

It is, for now at least, too good to be true. The technology on which the Hyperloop vision is based is theoretically possible, though difficult to implement. The basic idea is to generate low pressure in the tube to reduce drag, and have the vehicle propel itself forward while skimming along atop a thin cushion of air. Great in theory, but in practical terms it requires an awful lot of energy. Hyperloop One’s first public test earlier this year served only to demonstrate just how far from reality the technology is: the company simply managed to fire a sled down an open test track using electromagnetic force.

If and when the practicalities are solved, there’s still the small matter of cost. Forbes recently claimed to have seen documents that put a price tag on the Dubai project: a cool $4.8 billion. Clearly, costs have increased from earlier estimates, because Elon Musk originally claimed that a Hyperloop between Los Angeles and San Francisco—taking passengers on a journey over three times the length of the Dubai system—would cost $6 billion.

No wonder Hyperloop One is keen to work with Dubai. While certainly not the world’s richest city, its authorities are investing more heavily in infrastructure than many wealthier urban settlements. Still, even it’s not yet totally sold on the idea: according to TechCrunch, the consultancy firm McKinsey & Co. and architects at Bjarke Ingels Group are both set to evaluate whether the Hyperloop is feasible.

Add the fact that Hyperloop is embroiled in a surreal lawsuit to the questions over economics and engineering, and it seems unbelievable that Dubai’s consultants will return an enthusiastic yes after their deliberations. But that doesn’t stop it from looking like one hell of a ride.

(Read more: TechCrunch, Forbes, Wired, “The Hyperloop’s Underwhelming First Public Test,” “Experts Raise Doubts Over Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Dream”)