The key to Hyperloop’s success as a viable and profitable transportation system could be a technology that is over 60 years old: cargo containers.
A cargo container, or intermodal container, is a giant metal box that is used to ship freight. Such containers have revolutionized international shipping since the 1940s because they eliminate labor and other costs. A shipping container, or a Conex (container express) box, is a brilliant yet simple piece of technology that many people are unfamiliar with.
Why Cargo Containers Are So Important Anyway
Containerized or intermodal shipping works like this:
- A shipper in China packs the container with freight.
- A truck picks up the container and takes it to a port.
- The container is loaded onto a ship.
- The ship takes the container to a U.S. port such as Los Angeles or San Pedro.
- At the port, the container is off loaded onto a truck that takes it to a railyard.
- At the railyard, the container is loaded onto a train.
- The train takes the container to its destination in the United States.
- A truck picks up the container and takes it to its final destination, where it is opened and unloaded.
Such containers, as anybody who has seen a modern port such as that of Long Beach knows, are the basis of today’s international supply chain. Containers can be stacked as high as skyscrapers at such ports and on modern container ships. That enables one modern container ship to haul as much freight as dozens of old fashioned freighters. It also enables a container train to haul twice as much freight as a train with freight cars because containers can be stacked.
Containers greatly speeded up the shipping process because they only have been loaded and unloaded once. Before containers, items had to be loaded into trucks, freight cars and ships by hand. That led to a lot of loss through breakage and theft and to high labor costs.
Containerized cargo made modern trade possible and revitalized America’s railroads. Without containers, modern high-volume retailers like Walmart would not exist because they are what make it possible to ship virtually any good from China to the U.S. at a low price.
Containers Could Be the Key to Hyperloop’s Success
Containers could be the key to Hyperloop’s success because they would make it possible to quickly move large amounts of freight on the superfast transportation system.
If cargo containers could be loaded onto Hyperloop, they could be moved cross country at high speeds (300 to 700 miles an hour) at very low prices because the system runs on limited amounts of electricity. That would make Hyperloop the most competitive means of moving freight available.
Hyperloop Tech co-founders Shervin Pishevar and Brogan BamBrogan already grasp that. They have even put a picture of a standard 45-square-foot-high cube cargo container in a Hyperloop capsule on their website. Pishevar also thinks that Hyperloop could greatly reduce fossil fuel use, pollution and possibly global warming by eliminating the need for trains, trucks and possibly cargo ships.
A Pipeline for Freight and People
This means a good way to think of Hyperloop would be as a pipeline for moving freight and people. Pipelines are one of the cheapest and most efficient means of moving liquids and gases. They can also be very profitable, which is why Warren Buffett owns pipeline companies through his Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.B) Energy subsidiary.
This makes Pishevar, BamBrogan, Elon Musk and Hyperloop Tech CEO Rob Lloyd savvy businessmen as well as transportation visionaries. Lloyd’s vision of the Hyperloop as a sort of Internet for physical goods does not seem that farfetched when containers are added to the mix.
Interestingly enough, cargo containers and the Internet share something in common: They were developed by the U.S. military. The Internet was developed by the Pentagon’s think-tank DARPA in the 1960s and 1970s, and modern cargo containers were developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the late 1940s.
One result of Hyperloop could be to make containerized freight, which is now available to big business and the military, accessible to almost everybody. Small businesses and local stores as well as individuals could ship through containers that would be delivered to homes or stores by truck.
Another would be to eliminate a lot of the resistance to freight infrastructure by getting rid of the noise and pollution associated with it. People that might object to a rail line or a highway running through their neighborhood could be more willing to accept a large, quiet tube. Since the tube would be elevated off the ground it, would eliminate one of the major dangers associated with the U.S. freight railroad system: accidents between vehicles and trains at surface-level crossings.
Seamless Movement of Freight
Decreasing the cost of freight would also lower the cost of goods and help improve people’s lifestyles by cutting their grocery and other bills. One way this could occur would be to enable grocers like Kroger and retailers such as Walmart and Amazon to take advantage of containerized cargo. Walmart or Kroger could use containers on Hyperloop to ship to their stores, and Amazon or its shippers, such as UPS and the post office, could use it to ship to local distribution centers.
The existence of cargo containers could make Hyperloop a seamless means of moving freight and as big a part of our lives as the Internet. It could also be the most disruptive technology yet by making long haul trucking, freight railroads and possibly cargo ships obsolete. BamBrogan and Pishevar think that Hyperloop tubes could one day be built on the bottom of the ocean.
By combining an old and relatively simple technology with a new idea, a person or a company could achieve fantastic results. Cargo containers have transformed our world once, and they could do so again through Hyperloop.