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Is Tube Travel the Future of Transportation?

by Monica Lucas

A transportation technology is now on the radar claiming it could replace airplanes and cut reliance on fossil fuels. ET3, a company focused on making “evacuated tube travel” a reality, has implemented a 20-year timeline within which engineers believe infrastructure could exist to transport commuters from New York to Beijing in two hours.

According to ET3, evacuated tube travel will use electric motors to propel 6-passenger capsules inside of vacuum-sealed tubes that stretch thousands of miles—from New York to Los Angeles, from Washington D.C. to Beijing. Preliminary maps show the tubes stretching from Alaska to Russia, down through China and India and all the way through Europe to Great Britain. Set up like a highway system, it purports that a capsule will never be more than 15 minutes away from an exit.

Because the technology uses magnetic levitation in a vacuum, air and ground resistance will not slow the capsules down, and energy will not be needed to continue to propel them forward. Once the initial boost of energy is used, the motor does not need to continue to operate. ET3 claims that the motor may be able to recoup the lost energy when the capsule slows down. Since evacuated tube travel is so energy efficient, the majority of the cost comes from building the tube system. ET3 reports that the cost of the tubing is less than that of a four-lane highway and yet will have the carrying capacity of a 32-lane highway. The company claims that because the cost of building the tube system is low it will not require government support.

In the midst of all the talk about the technology, there are concerns regarding the use of eminent domain in attaining the land on which to build the tube system. Because it is land-based, thousands of miles of tubes would have to be placed in strategic areas across multiple continents and countless countries. The company states that it will offer landowners (both public and private) 5% of revenue generated from the land in exchange for a perpetual use right of way. The proposed lines, however, need to be placed over specific routes, making it likely that they will encounter problems gaining access to some property. This raises questions about how ET3 will be able to handle property rights issues as it moves forward.

Currently, talk of the technology is mostly speculative, as there has not yet been a proper test of the system. But if evacuated tube transport becomes a reality in the ways described by ET3, it is an innovation that has the potential to eliminate the need for other transportation means such as airplanes and railroads. It could dramatically increase the speed of transport and reduce energy use associated with transportation—all without government support.  In fact, the company considers bureaucracy to be the biggest obstacle to the success of the project.  

Now with the recent support of Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind SpaceX, evacuate tube travel has credibility, as Musk has proven his ability to make meaningful progress towards new transportation technologies. Evacuated tube travel seems to be a realistic possibility for the future of long-distance travel and I look forward to its progress. 

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