Achieving science fiction

21 September 2020

There seems no halting the progress of technology and its innumerable benefits. A really inspiring announcement from the British government states that by Spring 2021, automated lane-keeping systems could be legal on UK roads for low-speed driving.

This heralds a new dawn, the promise of a totally automated vehicle environment at some point in the future. How marvellous that will be.

And how marvellous it will be to travel by Hyperloop at near Mach 1 speeds between cities and, maybe one day, even continents. One man almost solely responsible for advancing the Hyperloop vision is Elon Musk. His outfit, The Boring Company, was recently given the green light to extend his compact Hyperloop system beyond the Las Vegas Convention Centre. Eventually, it is hoped to extend to more stations in Vegas and further afield – even to Los Angeles.

Musk’s work has pushed both Hyperloop and tunnelling generally into the public imagination. But just how realistic are his claims that he can increase the speed of TBM excavation tenfold and, at the same time, decrease costs by the same factor?

Many in the industry will be sceptical. Some have argued that current tunnelling technology – even after incremental advances – is unlikely to achieve the cost reductions which Musk suggests. Also, the cost of tunnelling is not just about speed of excavation per se, but also about the cost of tunnel labour, plant and machinery, geotechnical investigations, spoil disposal, TBM supply and a host of other variables.

But irrespective of the achievability of Musk’s claims, there are probably very few in tunnelling who would not raise a glass to him for his vision and his ability to inspire, whether about tunnelling or space travel. Many would relish the thought of travelling in a vacuum at 740mph over large distances. It is the stuff of science fiction, and science fiction is often rooted in logic and shows us what might be possible in a future world. Looking back, we can see how hugely important the sci-fi of the 1950s and 1960s was in inspiring science and in particular space travel. We are now fast catching up to the science fiction.

So visionaries like Musk are hugely important for all of us. It is largely because of them that we get to the moon and beyond, create robots with artificial intelligence and aspire to floating intercontinental tunnels tied to the sea bed.

As for Hyperloop, the technology may not quite yet be there. Tellingly, Musk’s Vegas venture uses Tesla cars travelling under normal atmospheric pressure; no vacuum or Maglev-style levitation is in sight. But it is on the cards, awaits us sometime soon and will no doubt be to the immense benefit of this industry.