Travel hasn’t changed all that much in the last century. There have been improvements on existing modes of transport, to be sure – passenger jets continue to grow in size and speed, cars are more comfortable and efficient, bullet trains halve commuting times – but when it comes down to the fundamentals, the spirit of innovation following the boom of rail, the automobile, and the airplane has been relatively dormant, despite fantastic visions of Jetson-esque floating pods or the instantaneous (yet metaphysically dubious) transporters of Star Trek.
That spirit may be stirring again, however, as ecological crisis and global interconnectivity encourage a new batch of entrepreneurs and designers to imagine bold new solutions to the growing need for green, rapid transit. ET3 – an open consortium of over five dozen international licensees – is one such force for a radical rethinking of infrastructure and the science of getting from ‘A’ to ‘B.’
The company’s Evacuated Tube Transport concept stands to revolutionize long-distance travel, and is attracting buzz from investors all over the world. The system consists of an airless tube five feet in diameter lined with a series of super-conductors. These powerful magnets levitate a streamlined, six-person capsule that can be propelled to speeds in excess of 4,000 mph using linear electric motors. The absence of air or contact with the tube reduces friction and drag to nearly zero, meaning the 400-pound passenger cars can simply coast to their destinations once the desired velocity is reached. The cars can also recapture most of their initial energy expenditures during the deceleration phase.
These speeds allow the pods to move between New York and Beijing in under two hours, and the design allows for one/one-hundredth the energy needs of conventional systems, with a 90 percent reduction in materials. The system provides 50 times more transportation per kilowatt-hour than electric cars or rail transportation, and has variable speeds for local, domestic, or international travel. The company claims that the tubes can be built for a tenth the cost of high speed rail systems, and nearly a quarter the cost of a freeway.
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Though some may judge the project as far-fetched, investors from China and beyond are buying dozens of licenses, and the firm was awarded a patent for the concept in 1999. With only seven years left to develop a functional prototype, though, supporters are pushing for the next phase of development, while skeptics – unconvinced of the merits of vacuum-based travel – aren’t holding their breath.