Imagine fleets of tiny, metallic pods—too small to comfortably sit in—zooming back and forth underground to deliver your Amazon packages or groceries.
Magway, a U.K.-based transport startup, thinks this is the way of the future, especially to curb the amount of greenhouse gases emitted throughout the shipping process, which is mostly relegated to the world of planes, trains, and trucks for now.
In theory, this all works similarly to the Hyperloop concept, a vac-train for passengers and freight that Elon Musk first dreamed up (but notably does not exist yet). The main difference, though, is that where Hyperloop will require massive underground tunnels that Musk’s The Boring Company might want to hollow out, Magway’s maglev (magnetic levitation) pods will only need a small tube to move through, considering each shipping pod is under three feet in diameter.
The future of delivery with Magway looks like this: Magnetic motors will transport the small pods—filled with various goods just like today’s UPS or FedEx trucks—through small-ish pipelines, moving from distribution hubs to consolidation centers. According to the London Evening Standard, some of the pipelines will be new and some will be pre-existing, as utility companies already use underground pipes. What’s interesting, though, is that the pipelines will not only be underground, but also overground or hung in suspension.
Power for the pipelines and pods comes in the form of an electromagnetic wave that’s generated through magnetic motors, like those used in roller coasters. The idea is to push multiple carriages, filled with parcels, down the tracks at approximately 30 miles per hour. Each pod will shoot through the pipes just milliseconds apart. Each will be propelled through the network of pipes to a local consolidation center.
Anna Daroy, managing director of Magway, told the Evening Standard that once the full system is put into place, it’s expected to move over 600 million packages per year to London. She said the new shipping capability will first roll out to airports.
“Vehicles delivering duty free and food and beverages to airports currently take anything between three and seven hours to get in and out of the airport perimeter,” Daroy said. “Magway can dispatch the equivalent of two 40-foot articulated lorries every minute.” In U.S. English that means Magway will be able to move two semi-trucks’ worth of goods per minute.
As with other Hyperloop projects, it’s going to cost big money to set up this pipeline infrastructure. Daroy said Magway will use a combination of long routes—which may share space with railways—and short pipelines from retail centers to distribution points. To build out the system, she expects it will cost about £2.4m per mile ($3.3 million) plus another $1.9 to $4.5 million for overhead costs like planning, installation and legal fees.
“An 850-kilometre (528-mile) network of pipes in London would cost between £5 billion and £7 billion and could be completed in 20 to 25 years,” Daroy said.
At publication time, Magway had already raised about $1.2 million through an equity crowdfunding round on Crowdcube from 1,168 investors.
Of course, there are other costs to consider—like the toll shipping takes on the environment. Once completed, Magway believes the system could help England reduce carbon emissions by up to six million tons per year by 2050, which represents about one-third of the U.K.’s current delivery vehicle emissions.
“Climate change and air pollution is the number one issue that my generation is facing at the moment,” Thomas Hughes, part of the innovation engineering team at Magway, said in a video for investors.