Hyperloop projects are currently being developed all around the world, but according to experts, this new technology poses significant and unparalleled security concerns.
“We’re aiming for a city to city Hyperloop system, not within twenty years, not within ten years, but just within four years,” said Tim Houter, CEO of Hardt Global Mobility, at a TNW conference in Amsterdam.
Houter’s startup is developing a Hyperloop system with support from the Technical University of Delft, Dutch railway company Nederlandse Spoorwegen, and multinational construction company BAM. It is one of many Hyperloop projects presently underway.
The city-state of Dubai recently announced a deal with Hyperloop One to explore the possibility of a line that would take passengers from Dubai to Abu Dubai in only twelve minutes. South Korea already has bullet trains, but the government there announced a deal with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies to develop a system. Elon Musk’s original proposal examined the possibility of connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco via Hyperloop, with a half-hour commuting time.
However, these Hyperloop transit systems could become a target for terrorism. The 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway, the 7/7 London Underground bombings and the 2016 Brussels bombings all illustrate this point.
When asked for comment, (Ret.) Colonel David Dodd replied, “Terrorists prefer mass transit systems since they transport large volumes of people in concentrated spaces. To terrorists, these are ‘high-value targets’ with large-scale destruction. Rail transport security is difficult due to the large number of passengers, limited security screening, multiple access points, and vulnerable ground based infrastructure. Attacks on rail strike terror since rail is used by all social and economic demographics.”
At the Amsterdam conference, Houter characterized the grandiose appeal of Hyperloop transit routes by stating, “Imagine that you have the freedom to live and work wherever you want. Imagine that distances just don’t matter.”
For some industry observers, this level of optimism is undercut by a stark and dangerous reality. “A single breach in the Hyperloop will probably kill everyone else in the Hyperloop. You see once you breach the outside tube, air will rush into the tube at about the speed of sound,” said Dr. Phil Mason, a former Cornell University chemist, in a video created for YouTube.
In the scathing and controversial video, Mason highlights a series of engineering elements within the Hyperloop that he considers to be technically infeasible. He then goes on to outline substantial security concerns. The video has over one million views.
According to CEO Tim Houter, the Hyperloop will function by propelling capsules of passengers or freight through a vacuum tube. The capsules will levitate magnetically and without mechanical friction, while being accelerated and decelerated by linear electrical motors. Houter asserts that this system of propulsion will be CO2-neutral and powered entirely by solar panels.
A Hyperloop is expected to operate at an average speed of 600 mph. The nation-spanning tubes would be built above ground and placed on pillars. “And when you are near to crowded cities, or crowded places, you just go underground,” explained Houter. “And actually this is a bit more expensive because you need to dig a tunnel.”
Houter envisions a near-future in which travel over a whole continent is as easy as metro travel within a city. Dr. Mason envisions systemic design problems that will lead to massive loss of life in the event of failure.
If a terrorist attack caused a breach within the Hyperloop, the various capsules inside the tube would lose their power connections and become stranded, according to Mason. He asks, “What about the people trapped inside this six hundred kilometer-long steel tube? Well, there’s a wall of air traveling down towards them at about the speed of sound. Essentially, a shockwave, and it will kill everyone in the capsule when it hits them. The only option is to put on the brakes, the emergency brakes. Now of course you have to hope that the emergency brakes are good enough and the capsule strong enough to survive being hit by that one atmosphere pressure wave.”
Even if passengers in the capsules are able to survive this pressure wave, they would still find themselves in a devastating situation. “You are now trapped inside a six hundred kilometer tube, in a sealed capsule which you cannot get out of,” Mason states in his video. According to Mason, air in the capsules could run out and it would be logistically difficult to rescue all the people.
Hyperloop One’s global communications representative Marcy Simon and publicist Peter Coolen did not respond to requests for comment. However, levitation engineer Casey Handmer of Hyperloop One addressed security concerns in a Reddit AMA last fall. Dr. Handmer has filed five preliminary patents, focused on structures and magnetic machines, while working for Hyperloop One.
In the Reddit thread, he wrote, “The regulatory framework for hyperloop isn’t fully formed and will vary from place to place. That said, security measures are typically a trade between time, efficacy, and being desperate to look like security is taking place. Hyperloop takes security seriously and will ensure the safety of the system and passengers without adding friction to the transportation process, or taking your water bottle.”
According to a proposal that Elon Musk released via his SpaceX website, the Hyperloop would feature the same level of security used at airports. The paper promises that there won’t be lines and delays, in contrast to the pulsed security situation at airports. The short travel time and frequent departure of Hyperloop capsules will allow for a steadier and faster flower of passengers through security screening.
In his video, Mason notes that comparisons between air travel and the Hyperloop don’t reflect favorably on the new technology. In air travel, a single-point failure doesn’t produce catastrophic effects across a physically-connected system.
“One plane crash does not destroy the entire infrastructure and kill everyone else flying the same route,” he states. Also, airplanes “very quickly go beyond the range of all but the high-end military weapons,” whereas a six hundred kilometer-long tube system is indefensible.
Musk’s paper states that in the event of an accident, emergency brakes would be used and “the Hyperloop tube would undergo rapid re-pressurization along its entire length.” It promises emergency exits and pressurization ports at key locations along the tube.
The Hyperloop Alpha paper also notes: “Tubes located on pylons would limit access to the critical elements of the system. Multiple redundant power sources and vacuum pumps would limit the impact of any single element.”
Although the tubes would be elevated on pylons and this is said to limit access, the paper does not address the possibility that the pylons themselves could be targeted.
“The structural pylons of this system appear to be easy targets for bad actors,” said Verghese Joseph, CEO & Chief Editor of The Tech Shield, a news site that focuses on the security sector. “In an earthquake-like situation, vulnerability of the structure is also a cause for concern.”
According to Colonel David Dodd, true security can only be achieved over the long-term. This is because terrorists are constantly modifying their tactics in order to defeat counterterrorism measures. He said that existing mass transit rail systems are already vulnerable.
“With hundreds of thousands of miles of rail tracks, defending each mile, at all times, is not practical. Fighting a long protracted defensive war will not result in victory. Defeating terrorism requires a comprehensive strategy utilizing all elements of national power; Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic (DIME),” said Dodd.
Chris Sajnog, a retired Navy SEAL sniper instructor, provides weapons and tactical instruction for civilians, military and law enforcement. He developed the curriculum for the Navy SEAL sniper training program and has personally instructed FBI, CIA and Homeland Security personnel. When asked for comment, Sajnog replied, “Of course, anything we build will be a target for terrorists and if we use that as an excuse for denying progress and expanding our freedom of movement, then the terrorists have already won.”
Sajnog said that a Hyperloop would have to be a joint public-private venture, due to its size and scope. In order to successfully protect a Hyperloop transit system, there will need to be a focus on Lead Measures instead of Lag Measures.
“For the Hyperloop, this means active denial to the plans,” said Sajnog. “The terrorists know the reactive measures we have in place at major transport hubs will also be used for the Hyperloop, so their focus will be on finding other vulnerabilities. To prevent this, everyone from the designers to the engineers to the people who work in their buildings need to be vetted. The plans need to be compartmentalized so that no one can get access to the entire plan and workers have access to as little information as needed to perform their tasks. This should also include disinformation of critical components.”
Thus far, Elon Musk’s approach to the Hyperloop would seem to go against this advice. Musk chose to open-source the technology, partly due to his existing time commitments with SpaceX, Tesla Motors, and SolarCity. Tim Houter’s company Hardt Global Mobility evolved from a Dutch team that won a global competition funded by Musk.