Feature  transport

Is it a train or a spaceship? 
designing the passenger experience for hyperloop

Is it a train or a spaceship? designing the passenger experience for hyperloop

Transport design firm PriestmanGoode has unveiled its Hyperloop capsule designs for developer Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. Designer Paul Priestman talks Chris Lo through the concept and the challenges of creating a next-generation transport system.

Established transport industries such as rail and aviation will continue to refine their respective vehicle design templates, but in the rare event that a radically new mode of transport emerges, there’s an enticing opportunity to start afresh, to ask new questions.

Which previous assumptions can be thrown out? In what ways does the new mode offer chances to innovate? How should passengers feel when they embark on their first journey?

While Hyperloop, the concept for which has been developing for a few years now, exists in the same mass transit realm occupied by railways, it would mark a radical departure in many ways. Hyperloop capsules hover in a reduced-pressure tube, with the lower air resistance helping to facilitate speeds that approach the supersonic.

Specialist transport design consultancy PriestmanGoode is in the position of being able to contribute to the Hyperloop design drawing board. The firm was commissioned by Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), one of the leading companies developing the technology, to design the system’s passenger-bearing capsules.

The partnership, which has its origin in an initial meeting in Dubai between the HTT team and PriestmanGoode chairman Paul Priestman in 2016, gives the firm an opportunity to make its mark on HTT’s futuristic transport system.

PriestmanGoode revealed some visualisations of its work-in-progress design for the HTT capsule’s exterior. Here, Priestman discusses the opportunities and challenges of designing a vehicle that blurs the boundaries between train and aircraft.

Paul Priestman, director of PriestmanGoode and designer of the HTT Hyperloop capsule.

Concept image for HTT's hyperloop capsule. All images courtesy of PriestmanGoode.

Chris Lo: What were your initial goals for this design and what are you hoping to express?

Paul Priestman: I think the exterior of objects like this, particularly with trains and aeroplanes, they are the face of what is, in effect, quite a complex service. But it’s the one image and I always think it’s interesting – we design an awful lot of metros and other forms of mass transit, and they’re very rarely seen, but it’s still that image that goes on bottles of milk and stamps. It embodies the whole process, the whole story.

Obviously when you’re designing it, aerodynamics represents one big issue. A lot of people think, ‘With Hyperloop it’s in a vacuum, so why do you think about aerodynamics?’ But it’s only a partial vacuum. It’s equivalent to an aircraft travelling at altitude; the only reason aircraft go up so high is to get into thinner air so they can reduce the drag. That’s exactly the same idea for Hyperloop. So there is air, and it has to push past that air within the tube. So the aerodynamics are important, particularly at lower and higher speeds.

How important is it that your design acknowledges that Hyperloop represents something new in transport?

We didn’t want it looking too ‘train-like’ because it is part-way between aeroplane and train. When we had the exhibition during the London Design Festival – Design Frontiers at Somerset House – we had a lot of general public coming around and looking at the exhibition. There’s an interesting generational thing. Certainly the younger age groups find it very inspiring and very exciting and then as you get to the older age groups, this scepticism feeds in. I think that was really interesting.

Hyperloop is going to be the only form of distance travel that isn’t affected by bad weather. Aeroplanes can’t take off in certain conditions and have to fly around things; trains are susceptible to bad weather as well. This could be a controlled, closed system and I find that really interesting.

Hyperloop capsules hover in a reduced-pressure tube, with the lower air resistance helping to facilitate speeds that approach the supersonic.

What new considerations do you have to think about when designing something like Hyperloop?

It’s certainly more of an open brief at this stage, so I think you have to look at the basic facts and then through design we’re looking at differentiating it from other forms of transport. The brief to us was to design a capsule that would go up to 700kmph, it was going to take up to 40 people and it’s a short journey. All of those things – that’s not a train and it’s not an aeroplane either. You could say it’s more of an executive jet.

The fact that you’ll have multiple capsules or vehicles travelling immediately opens opportunities to design the interiors in a completely different way. There are opportunities to brand each capsule, perhaps, with a different brand. I find that interesting. So if you have a favourite coffee brand or fashion brand, then you could travel on that particular capsule. You could travel in more of a budget airline mode, or you could pay a little bit more to get more space. All of those things you can’t really do on trains because of the nature of the beast.

You haven’t revealed any interior imagery yet, but what are your priorities for the inside of the capsules?

I think a lot of people immediately say, ‘Will having no windows be a drawback?’ It’s something that I think could possibly be an advantage. Something we’re starting to come across in aeroplanes is that virtual windows are sometimes preferable to actually having windows, for a number of reasons. It can reduce weight because window panels are heavy and complex from an engineering point of view.

With modern, flat-screen, dynamic displays now, we can have a window that runs the length of the vehicle. We can have a virtual skylight as well. I think the impression you will have when first boarding these is that it’s a very light and airy environment. There are lots of things we could do – you can put cameras on the outside of the Hyperloop tube itself, which relay real-time imagery to the inside, so you could have the effect of travelling in a very open environment, with cities shooting past at very high speeds.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is one of the leading companies developing the technology.

Are you having a lot of conversations with Carbures on the construction side?

Yes, we are. We’re in conversation with them on a regular basis. We are providing surface data for that part of the project. It’s all to do with working with the technologists who they’re working with, a lot of the composites that are now being used in the aviation industry and all of those areas. It is very close to an aircraft-type spec because it’s a pressurised unit, you need air supply and it’s travelling at high speeds.

There’s a lot to learn from that industry and start afresh from others as well. That’s why I say it’s more akin to a flying object than a product for the heavy rail industry. We’ve worked on maglevs in different countries around the world, but the lightness of the engineered vehicles is more akin to an aircraft rather than a train, which traditionally is heavy iron, which you would obviously never use on a flying object.

How does it feel to provide design input for a technology that could end up being a major step-change in long-distance public transport?

It’s immensely exciting. It’s been one of the most popular projects in our office for people to work on. You don’t often get that sort of project happening. We were working on some space ships at one point, and lots of electric cars, but to work on something that is a completely new form of transport? That doesn’t happen very often. I think I’ll come back to the enthusiasm about the whole idea, particular from younger age groups. I think we can learn a lot from that and [having] the enthusiasm to say, ‘We should do it – it’s possible.’

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