Next year will mark 150 years since the last spike was driven into the final railroad tie connecting the first transcontinental railroad in the U.S.
On May 10, 1869, supervisors and crewmembers from three railroad companies gathered a mile above sea level at Promontory Summit in Utah to watch Leland Stanford, the president of Central Pacific Railroad, drive the ceremonial 17.6 karat “Golden Spike.”
Private enterprise spurred the railroad’s development. The government supported it. And as travel time dropped from East to West and back again, the intended increase in commerce followed. As raw materials and finished goods could be transported much more quickly, industrialization of the West picked up speed.
What’s Good for Transportation Is Good for Commerce
Commerce constantly strives to access new markets faster, moving more goods and more people, more cheaply. That drives investment in improved transportation – safer, faster and more economical. Technological advancements in AI, robotics and faster machine-to-machine connectivity allow asset-intensive environments to optimize their performance, take decisive action more quickly, collaborate among themselves and collectively learn.
Take the automotive industry. Carmakers are already reimagining the concept of transportation using perceptual computing (machines that interact with their surroundings using five senses) and pervasive computing (embedded micro controllers to make machines ”smart”) to speed travel, promote safety, improve fuel economy and achieve sustainability.
As the world’s population grows, however, and more people can afford to buy automobiles and other forms of transport, infrastructure and the global environment are coming under intense pressure. Clearly, our planet would struggle if every inhabitant owned an automobile.
Today, digital innovation has purpose beyond commerce: to tie people together without more gridlock; to reduce energy emissions (since even electricity generation burns fossil fuels); to get people from place to place faster, more safely and economically; and to develop innovative products that improve the customer experience — and their lives.
To meet these dictates for transportation systems, no development looks as revolutionary as Hyperloop, a low-pressure tube in which passenger pods travel at a rate near the speed of sound. The transportation system is designed to be underground or supported on pillars above the ground to lessen accidents and natural disaster risks. And Hyperloop proposes to cut rail and automobile travel times between cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., by five or six times.
Certainly, Hyperloop faces engineering challenges. Not the least of these is the effect on the human body of rapid acceleration and deceleration while having to negotiate curves, peaks and troughs. Other practical challenges include energy, efficiency and sustainability. But these are technical challenges that engineers are addressing, including alternative fuel sources such as solar panels, lighter materials, and combining magnetic levitation (maglev) with propulsion systems that convert higher air pressure at the front of the pod into a propellant that supercharges pod performance.
Early Hyperloop experimentation is arousing interest from California to the Netherlands, and from China to Mumbai. As for the practicality of transporting people safely, a development team at the Delft University of Technology recently revealed its ATLAS 01 Hyperloop pod, a half-size prototype of its design for a vehicle to carry passengers inside the Hyperloop tube. TU Delft’s graduate-level engineering team began development of its current entry in September 2017, after the first Hyperloop pod design competition was completed earlier that year. In that earlier Hyperloop competition, which evaluated the best pod design, the TU Delft Hyperloop team won first place overall.
Meeting the Hyperloop Challenge
The recent public reveal of TU Delft’s Hyperloop pod, ATLAS 2.0, comes in advance of a SpaceX Hyperloop competition that will take place July 22, inside a half-size test Hyperloop built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX at its headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. The team whose model achieves the highest speed wins the competition. This is a tough challenge, as the pod must accelerate, achieve top speed, brake and then come to a full stop in a single kilometer, the total length of the test loop.
Cognizant Digital Business is supporting the TU Delft team as a Prime Partner in the development of its prototype. Its Hyperloop pod’s control system depends on an enormous array of sensors and sophisticated algorithms. Our Connected Products team is helping the team refine and test model-based simulations of the interplay of sensors, the environment and the vehicle. These models of the physical environment — so-called digital twins — allow scenario-testing of the pod itself, with the goal of making it “fail-safe.” (Watch this video to see how.)
This parallels Cognizant’s work in the similarly promising realm of connected cars, rail, airlines, even bicycles. We are providing the TU Delft team with advice and technical support to help ensure the reliability and safety of its designs. The team writes specifications for ways to reduce risk; then they write the software. We test it for them, against our own hardware and software. As with all our work, we’re seeking to bridge the digital and the physical worlds to create real-world solutions.
A New Legacy
The legacy of “the Golden Spike” was easier movement across the country, greater market access and larger profits. Now, technological innovation is leading us forward again, to a future of transportation enabled by digital thinking and technologies built around sensorization, AI, hardware and software design, and human-centered product innovation and engineering.
Humans will continue their quest to realize cheaper, faster, more sustainable modes of transportation. Other mega-programs, like Big Falcon’s effort to provide point-to-point space travel (New York to Shanghai in 30 minutes), are already underway. For now, Hyperloop offers the promise of a Golden Spike in innovation in the 21st century – one that drives connections and commerce that benefit us all. We’re thrilled to be participating in the SpaceX competition. The world will be watching.
Raj Ravindranathan, Head of EMEA Cognizant Connected Products, contributed to this blog.