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Posted: November 06, 2013

The futurist: 100 million jobs at stake

Competing for the world’s largest infrastructure project

Thomas Frey

When Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk mysteriously leaked that he was working on his Hyperloop Project, the combination of secrecy, cryptic details, and his own flair for the dramatic all contributed to the media frenzy that followed.
 
Leading up to this announcement was his growing anxiety over California’s effort to build a very expensive high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco with outdated technology.

While the Musk media train was picking up steam, several reporters pointed out a similar effort by Daryl Oster and his Longmont, Colorado-based company ET3 to build a comparable tube transportation system that was much further along.

Indeed, both are working on what will likely be the next generation of transportation where specially designed cars are placed into sealed tubes and shot, much like rockets, to their destination. While high-speed trains are breaking the 300 mph speed barrier, tube transportation has the potential to make speeds of 4,000 mph a common everyday occurrence.

As Daryl Oster likes to call it, “space travel on earth.”

Even though tube travel like this will beat every other form of transportation in terms of speed, power consumption, pollution, and safety, the big missing element is its infrastructure, a tube network envisioned to combine well over 100,000 miles of connected links.

While many look at this and see the lack of infrastructure as a huge obstacle, at this point in time it is just the opposite, the biggest opportunity ever.

Constructing the tube network will be the biggest infrastructure project the earth has ever seen, with a projected 50-year build-out employing in excess of 100 million people along the way. But in addition to these impressive projections, there’s far more at stake than just jobs and superfast transportation. Here’s why.
 
  *Transportation Trends*
 
According to Richard Florida, author of the bestseller Rise of the Creative Class, average transportation speed in the U.S. in 1850 was 4 mph. As more cars and trains came into use, by 1900 speeds had doubled to 8 mph. Driven by the Henry Ford car era and an emerging airline industry, by 1950 the pace of travel tripled to 24 mph. With airline travel becoming far more common, by 2000 the average was boosted all the way to 75 mph.

Following this trend line, the logical next iteration of travel will boost averages to 225 mph or more.

So what is the breakthrough in transportation that will move us to a whole new level of speed and efficiency? Many are beginning to think tube transportation is the logical next step.
 
  *Early History – The Vactrain*
 
For nearly a century, this form of future travel was being referred to as the “vactrain concept.”

Russian professor Boris Weinberg proposed a “vactrain” concept in 1914 in his book Motion without Friction. He also built an earlier model at Tomsk University in 1909.

The vactrain concept was also being studied in 1910 by American aerospace pioneer, Robert Goddard, who created a detailed prototype with a university student. His train was designed to travel from Boston to New York in 12 minutes, averaging 1,000 mph. The train plans were found only after Goddard’s death in 1945 and shortly thereafter his wife filed for the patents.

Vactrains later made headlines during the 1970s when a leading advocate, Robert M. Salter of RAND, published a series of elaborate engineering articles in 1972 and again in 1978.
 
Vactrains also appeared in science fiction novels, including Arthur C. Clarke’s Rescue Party (1946), Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1950), and Robert A. Heinlein’s Friday (1982).
 
  *Getting ET3 Started*

Daryl Oster’s epiphany moment happened back in the 1980s in a mechanical engineering class in college when he was calculating the drag coefficient on various shaped objects in a wind tunnel and made a mistake with air-density. On a lark he dropped the air-density to zero and it suddenly occurred to him how beneficial it would be to travel in a vacuum.

Over the following decades, designing ET3’s vacuum tunnels and maglev tracks became an obsession for Oster, as he oriented his work and research around the massive benefits of frictionless travel, forming the original company in 1997.

In 2012, Oster formed the ET3 Global Alliance to serve as a licensing consortium to create an open opportunity for key companies and individuals around the world to participate. The Alliance allows for easy pooling of technology and intellectual property along with equally simple licensing of the technology.

There are three differentiating features in the ET3 design. First it’s built around a narrow tube diameter to reduce weight and maximize vacuum efficiency. Narrower tubes, only 5’ in diameter, mean less vacuum pumping, lighter pylons and bridge supports for elevated segments and less drilling when going underground or through mountain ranges.

Second, Oster’s capsules are relatively small, designed around the dimensions of a midsize car, 4’3” high and 16’2” long. Small capsule sizes mean lower costs for things like the yttrium barium copper oxide ceramics on board to maintain superconductivity, and less cost for life-support and entertainment systems. Each capsule will have room for up to six seats for passengers or three pallets for cargo. The maximum weight including passengers, baggage, and cargo: 1,212 pounds. Minimal sized capsules means less stresses and lower costs throughout the entire system, translating into massive cost savings, operating at one-tenth that of high speed rail or a quarter of the cost of cars on a freeway.

The third differentiator is the use of high-temperature superconducting maglev, which ET3 licensee Yaoping Zhang pioneered at China’s Southwest Jiaotong University. The technology uses liquid nitrogen rather than liquid helium as a coolant, which lets the system run somewhere between 63 and 77 Kelvin – minus-321 to minus-346 Fahrenheit – the zone in which nitrogen neither boils nor freezes solid. Traditional maglev runs on helium which is much more expensive. The capsules will have the superconductor material onboard.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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