3 ways you could die while riding a hyperloop | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 18.12.2018
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3 ways you could die while riding a hyperloop

Could anyone survive a hyperloop pileup at 1,200 kilometers per hour? And what if someone attacks a hyperloop tunnel from the outside, or my pod gets a hole?

For some, the idea of traveling at 1,200 kilometers per hour (750 miles per hour), all while floating on magnets, is the stuff of dreams.

It's also rich fodder for catastrophe physics.

So — what are some of the ways you could die while riding a hyperloop, and how likely is it that one of those scenarios will occur?

Sucked into the void

Nightmare scenario 1: If you've watched a film set in space, you've probably seen an otherwise happy spacefarer get sucked into outer space and die there. It usually happens when the ship gets punctured, or an airlock opens, and — poof!  — the passenger tumbles tragically and permanently into the blackness (unless she's Princess Leia).

Astronaut Alexander Gerst auf der ISS

Nope, no one out there

In theory, the same could happen if you were riding a hyperloop.

A hyperloop tube that's had nearly all the air pumped out of it is like a tube of "outer space" right here on planet Earth.

And a hyperloop pod is a lot like a "spaceship" — meaning you, the passenger, are in a pressurized vehicle surrounded by what basically amounts to a vacuum. If something, anything, were to significantly puncture your pod, you'd get sucked out fast.

Now if your pod were at a standstill when this happened, you would hit the ground and asphyxiate due to a lack of oxygen in the tube. Hopefully, you would be resuscitated within six minutes to maximize your chances of survival.

But if the puncture happened while the vehicle was moving at, say, 1,200 kilometers per hour, you'd hit the ground at a speed of roughly 300 meters per second. That's three football fields — in a second. At that velocity, you and the other unfortunate passengers would end up resembling a Jackson Pollock painting.

Elon Musk

The man behind the madness: Elon Musk's support for hyperloops breathed new life into an old concept

Tim Vleeshouwer, who's the head of a full-scale hyperloop development team at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, says these scenarios are unlikely, though — at least in the model his team is developing.

"The walls of the passenger module will be approximately 10 centimeters [four inches] thick," he told DW. "That's thicker than an airplane."

Still, what if a crack or hole were to occur?

"Then the whole tube can be depressurized instantly to release the vacuum and restore normal atmospheric pressure," he says.

You wouldn't, in other words, asphyxiate.

But do expect a really scary amount of wind.

A pileup accident

Nightmare scenario 2: What if the pod ahead of me hits the brakes for some reason and pulls to a stop?

Isn't that a recipe for a disastrous fender bender (Or "blender?")?

To update a dark old joke: "What would be the last thing to go through the hyperloop passenger's mind?"

"His headrest."

Since the Delft team's vision involves pods filled with 50 passengers departing every 30 seconds — that's two pods per minute — the risk of a "rear-ending" is real. Such an accident would be fatal, immediately, for all 100 people involved.

Dubai Hyperloop (Reuters/C. Pike )

Reminder: We're talking about one of many hyperloop concepts, and Dubai's (above) has different specs

Vleeshouwer, however, says his team's design "has very good brakes."

If, for example, a pod up ahead failed, "the brakes are designed to bring [the pod behind it] to a standstill in 20-25 seconds."

He calls this a "brick wall" scenario.

Still, the math isn't fun.

If I'm 30 seconds behind the pod ahead of me, and it takes 25 seconds to stop, that leaves just five seconds for the first pod to send a "FAILURE" message to a server and then to my pod and the rest of the network.

The Wi-Fi in those hyperlooop tunnels under the Alps had better be good.

I can't imagine it'd feel very good, having to decelerate from 300 meters per second to zero in that time frame. I can already see the smartphones, tablets, laptops and cups of coffee lifting up into the air due to the negative Gs, and then slamming into the pod's front wall (or that poor guy's headrest). And if my pod stops, then the one behind it has to stop, too — and the one behind that — setting off a chain reaction of emergency braking and smartphone smashing.


An act of terror

Finally, the perfect hyperloop catastrophe: A destroyed section of track, a hyperloop approaching at terrifying speeds, and a damsel in distress posting it all to Instagram!

Surely this scenario is already being scripted into a future Mission: Impossible or James Bond movie, and it's the one that seems to jump out at people who have just heard about hyperloops for the first time.

In the Delft team's vision for Europe, for example, roughly 50 percent of the track will be underground, while 50 percent would be above it — theoretically leaving half of it exposed to an act of terrorism.

So, how to protect it?

The short answer is you can't.

"[The tubes] will be placed on pillars five to six meters above the ground," Vleeshouwer says. "So it's not very easily reachable."

Second, they plan to run the hyperloop tracks right alongside existing traffic infrastructure, like high-speed rail lines or highways. That means they will be visible, making them easier to monitor.

Hyperloop Transportsystem Projekt von SpaceX & Elon Musk (picture-alliance/SpaceX via AP/P. Larson)

Yes, a determined person could get to it — just like with trains

But if a section of the track were to be destroyed intentionally, then, well … yes, it would likely be fatal. But only for one unlucky pod and its 50 passengers.

The rest of the pods would come to a standstill in an attempt to reduce the number of casualties.

And really, is this, the most outwardly nightmarish of all scenarios, that much different from the risk of taking any old train?

So … should I ride one?

If all of these big what ifs make you sick to your stomach, don't worry. Hyperloop pods will have a restroom. (They really will.)

More seriously, though, it's important to remember that we human beings have a very long tradition of distrusting new transportation methods which we later take for granted.

Vleeshouwer and his team like to mention how people initially feared trains 200 years ago, since there were rumors that traveling faster than 30 kilometers per hour could cause the human head to explode.

It was also thought that cows grazing near train lines would produce sour milk because of the noise. And similar theories abounded for airplanes 100 years ago, too.

"People were like, 'Why do we want to travel faster, why do we want to travel further?'" Vleeshouwer says. "And I think that's the same with the hyperloop. [But] it provides so many opportunities, and it would be a pity if we didn't research the possibilities."