A system of tubes contemplated for the U.S. Postal Service.
Raymond Alvarez: Travel in the 19th Century was dusty, smokey and slow – very slow. But commuters these days may be wondering if it was better. In Beijing, the roads have become so snarled that commuters abandon their vehicles in traffic that doesn’t move for days. Here in the U.S., many young adults don’t even contemplate owning a vehicle. They prefer cycling or walking.
The road ahead shows signs of a straining transportation system. Some are asking if we have reached a tipping point.
No one and no thing may be tested as much as the the U.S. Postal Service. In recent weeks, the Postal Service reported it once again is drowning in red ink. One writer vetted the idea of raising the price of the stamp to a dollar. A logical response? Doubling down on the price would solve the immediate financial woes of the Post Service. Or will it accelerate trends?
Another 54 cents may seem like chump change. It’s not. Just ask a small organization that mails thousands of member letters, or publications?
Someone gets to pay for it. That’s you, the consumer. You pay in higher cost or a lower level of service. As a Government Supported Enterprise, the Postal Service already has handed the taxpayer the bill for its overruns. That is $41 billion since the Postal Service started losing money.
Another rap on the Post Service these days is its dependence on using carbon-based fuel. Guzzling gas and moving mail over ignored roads and bridges is headed for a dead end, if there isn’t change. The Postal service has a network that spans the nation: 461 distribution centers, 32,000 post offices, and 213,000 vehicles, the largest civilian fleet in the world, according to Esquire. The service rolls 1.3 billion miles annually – sometimes electrically.
There is a better way.
Daryl Oster is enjoying the spotlight he shares with Elon Musk. Oster’s ET3 has been featured in Mashable, Forbes, and many others including Fox Business in the weeks since Musk unveiled his idea for a Hyperloop. Jumpstart will be the vehicle for funding Hyperloop.
Enter the hypertube. Travel at speeds up to 4,000 mph is possible. When built, tubes that could be bundled 12 deep in the Chunnel could carry passengers and freight. That’s one vision of ET3 Founder Daryl Oster, who adds that his hypertube could fit in the ventilation shaft for the Chunnel.
The task of the Postal Service is enormous. It delivers 83.8 million packages and that’s just the amount the USPS picks up for free. USPS touches 160 billion pieces of mail, weighing in at a staggering 305 billion pounds, according to the U.S. Congress.
Freight is the lifeblood for society. Consumers pay for freight every time they take out their wallets. Only a small percentage of goods is produced locally, and that, too has to be carried to market.
Without a paradigm shift, transportation is headed for a cliff.
But there is hope. Past experience shows the prospect of accelerated commerce moves government and business as no other force can.
Government was where commerce turned to in years past when the transcontinental railroad was contemplated. Remember, the government called for a contest. Railroads were built quickly, and connected the two coasts. But the real winner of the contest wasn’t the Pacific Railroad. U.S. commerce was unleashed as never before.
Work has been proceeding diligently for decades on moving people and freight faster. Soon passengers could be whisked to far flung points of the map in mere minutes. ET3’s Oster says two hours from New York to Beijing is possible. Elon Musk, a latecomer and a billionaire, would have a Hyperloop move travelers from San Francisco to L.A. in 30 minutes. And the cost? If the $41 billion paid out in Postal Service overruns had paid for the tubes, Musk’s Hyperloop could have been funded more than six times over.
Government subsidy won’t be necessary, though. Permission is all that stands in the way. Businesses using crowd funding and other investment will take care of the rest.
China investors already have jumped at the chance to sign on with Longmont’s ET3, designer of an evacuated tube that would send compartments flying through tubes at an astonishing 4,000 mph. Meanwhile, California interest has culminated in a JumpStartFund effort to build a California Hyperloop.
Proved in earlier days
Traveling via pneumatic tube has been contemplated since the mid 19th Century. The DailyMail dug in archives for this bit of history:
“Staggeringly advanced for their time, the subterranean network (of tubes) which extended from Brooklyn’s General Post Office to Harlem to Times Square and Grand Central Terminal was propelled by pressurized air and cost $4 million to contruct in the 1890s.
Despite its fin de siécle (end of century) appearance, the system was surprisingly effective, as a 1914 congressional report said of one particularly bad winter, ‘New York streets were almost impassable – New York business houses nevertheless received their important mail on time!’ – according to the New York Times.“
Used exclusively for mail, the tubes could accommodate a cat, but certainly not a human.
Engineers today say tube travel is not only possible, it can be built much better and much faster. Passenger comfort is no problem. Gradual acceleration and braking over a tube with gradual turns will reduce the G-forces for the speeds contemplated. How will it feel?
“How do you feel right now?” ET3’s Daryl Oster asked recently. “Fine,” I replied, curious as to where Oster was headed with the question. Appearing a few weeks later for a Boulder meeting attended largely by a receptive crowd of mostly programmers, Oster was enjoying the attention of the world spotlight. Oster is fond of talking about incredible speed – like the fact our planet races around the sun, and the sun orbits the galaxy at great speeds. He reminds us that we orbit the Milky Way Galaxy at about 200,000 mph.
“The experience won’t be like blasting off. It will be more like what you would experience in an accelerating luxury car like the Tesla,” Oster says. The G force in a tube won’t require passengers to wear flight suits like the ones jet pilots use to keep them from blacking out during turns and other nimble maneuvers.
While the idea is old, new tube transport systems rely on advanced technology, like superconductors and solar energy. Superior materials and methods of manufacturing exist today. BuzzFeed says tubes can be braided from high-strength materials, creating one continuous tube. This is an important innovation. Fewer seams means fewer possibilities for air leaks. These are important considerations for hypertube proponents who want to evacuate most of the air to achieve all that speed.
Oster adds “a vacuum” is not possible. “The magnetically levitated ET3 capsules will operate in tubes having a medium grade (99.9999%) vacuum that is optimized for the lowest total energy use. Hyperloop calls for a 99% to 99.9% vacuum because Hyperloop requires a small amount of compressed air for passenger breathing, propulsion, and the air bearing skis that function like an air hockey table.”
A love affair with autos
History might be different if travel by auto had not become so convenient. Circumstances derailed plans to build great tube systems in the 19th Century. An early test track gave 400,000 rides to New Yorkers over a period beginning in 1869, the year construction of the transcontinental railroad was completed. Beach Pneumatic Transit raised money for Civil War orphans, though its true intent was to build more network. About the time, the network was ready for launch, the stock market dropped and interest evaporated.
In the 1890s, a smaller tube and a network was constructed for New York inner city mail. But, the city later would shut it down. By 1953, other technology had sprung past the pneumatic tubes. Why send tube mail when you could pick up the phone? Moving mail at 35 mph was not so impressive when you could pay the Post Office to pick up your larger bag of mail and carry it over roads further and for mere pennies. An excerpt from HowStuffWorks.com:
After the pause for World War I, “private companies that would have built new systems stopped putting in bids because of all the Congressional regulations and gradually, the existing systems’ capacity was outstripped by the growing volume of mail. Instead, the Post Office put its money into mail trucks, which had the added advantages of transporting mail to locations far more distant than a pneumatic tube system could reach.”
America was in love with the automobile in the ’50s. Fuel was cheap. I can remember seeing pump prices at 10 cents a gallon when my family traveled the oil producing parts of Texas in 1960. Too, the roads were not so clogged then and few noticed the air was becoming unbreathable.
A transformation coming?
The Postal Service can transform itself again. Loading and reloading onto air transport can be eliminated entirely. Increasing the distance involved only magnifies the superiority of hypertube transit. If a person can ride the system from New York to Beijing for a mere $100, how much would it cost for a 5-pound package? In fact, moving goods is the more lucrative side of transportation.
A fast-changing society will almost certainly apply more pressure for quick delivery. Entrepreneurialism is growing and it will be better accommodated by inexpensive freight charges. Allowing more players to compete on an even playing field might not be welcome news for Walmart. However, Walmart won’t mind seeing its transportation costs drop from 20 percent to 2 percent, Oster maintains. And Fedx and UPS have to like the prospect or firing their freight over the Bering Strait to China, India and then Europe.
Just considering the Postal Service, is it any wonder why ET3’s Daryl Oster and SpaceX’s Elon Musk believe the time has come for hypertube transportation?
Innovate or perish
It goes without saying that controlling spending is at the front of a lot of minds. Conventional travel chafes on most travelers. Recall that without heavy subsidy, passenger travel by rail would have disappeared. Now, commuters face gridlock and long waits on the tarmac.
If the Postal Service was a true business, it would be lowering the cost of a stamp. The ET3 or Hyperloop make it possible. Best of all, hypertube shipping brings more than speed. The tube will shield passengers from the elements, even floods, Oster says. With a country in a mood to rein in spending along with a drive to extend commerce, the mandate for the Post Office, as it has been for others of late: Innovate or perish.
Is there a “need for speed?”
The historical trend favors higher speed, Futurist Thomas Frey of Colorado’s DaVinci Institute maintains. Frey spoke with me on a day after floods had ravaged Boulder County, Colorado restricting road use.
Travelers have been gaining speed over the decades since they first stepped onto a rail car. In the mid 19th Century, the average speed of travel was about 4 mph gradually increasing to over 75 mph today when you average in air travel. That is about to climb even higher.
Frey was in the midst of developing a talk on his idea for a Museum of the Future, an idea that has the folks at Disney excited. “The time is coming. The future will certainly have to include something like an ET3.”
Raymond Alvarez is a Longmont, Colorado writer, illustrator and programmer. Alvarez spoke at length in several meetings since May with ET3 Founder Daryl Oster, who makes his home near Longmont.
UPDATE: After Elon Musk finally revealed his plans for the Hyperloop ultra-high-speed transportation system on August 12, the billionaire entrepreneur released his proposal, hoping someone would pick up the idea and run with it. Someone has.
Marco Villa, formerly the director of mission operations for Musk’s SpaceX company, and Patricia Galloway, formerly the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, have emerged as the leaders of an effort to actually finance and build Hyperloop.
Villa and Galloway lead a group that has appeared on JumpStartFund, a crowdsourcing website somewhat like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, but fundamentally different in an important way: JumpStartFund allows groups to form corporations to back the ideas they love. This allows the site to trade in massive proposals that would be far too pricey for typical crowdsourcing sites. Hyperloop, for instance, would cost only $6 billion, according to Musk, and big infrastructure projects tend to get more expensive as they go, not less.
Musk, while hinting that he might build a demonstration prototype of Hyperloop, has declined to commit his own limited time to actually building the thing. In a statement, Villa reaffirmed what a lot of engineers said upon Musk’s big reveal—there’s no technical reason Hyperloop couldn’t work.
(edited for length)