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Elon Musk's Jetsons Tunnel, And Other Out There High-Speed Transit Ideas

Where we’re going, we don’t need high-speed rail. The Tesla cofounder recently announced he thought he could build a tunnel that would whisk people across the country in minutes, and he’s not the only one working on a project like that.

High-speed rail scored a long-awaited win in California earlier this month when state lawmakers gave the go-ahead for construction to begin on a San Francisco to Los Angeles line. Soon after that announcement, Amtrak offered up plans to build a $124 billion high-speed rail line that would take passengers from New York to Boston and Washington in 97 minutes. But forget that. Tesla cofounder Elon Musk recently discussed the idea of building a tunnel that would whisk passengers from L.A. to San Francisco in minutes. And he’s not the only one: entrepreneurs and designers have a number of other ideas for mind-bogglingly fast ways to get around. Below, some of the most far-out—and exciting—ones we’ve seen recently.

The Hyperloop

Musk envisions a solar-powered "Jetsons tunnel" that would take passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than 30 minutes.

He elaborated on the idea, which he calls the Hyperloop, at a PandoDaily event (transcript courtesy of Business Insider): "This system I have in mind, how would you like something that can never crash, is immune to weather, it goes 3 or 4 times faster than the bullet train. … It goes an average speed of twice what an aircraft would do. … I think we could actually make it self-powering if you put solar panels on it, you generate more power than you would consume in the system. There’s a way to store the power so it would run 24/7 without using batteries." It’s just a dream for now, but Musk is considering putting a patent on the idea, which he will later open-source for anyone to work on.

Urban Mole

The Urban Mole, a project from designer Phillip Hermes, doesn’t transport humans—just packages. It’s described by Hermes as "an inner-city courier and delivery system which uses the sewers as a "new-old" infrastructure. The mole itself is a transportation unit which can be filled with goods and find its way unaided to its destination." It is, in other words, a robotic package delivery system that travels through a network of pipes, potentially cutting down on above-ground congestion caused by delivery trucks. We haven’t yet heard of any plans to commercialize the idea.

Evacuated Tube Transport

The Evacuated Tube Transport system can theoretically travel up to 4,000 miles per hour, taking passengers from Washington D.C to Beijing in two hours.

The system combines maglev technology (which uses magnetic levitation to move vehicles) found in today’s high-speed trains with a vacuum-sealed environment that allows human-filled capsules to move incredibly fast. Evacuated Tube Transport probably won’t replace high-speed rail anytime soon, but there is an open consortium dedicated to getting the technology commercialized. And at least one advocate thinks that Evacuated Tube Transport could be used within a decade.

The Matternet

Created by a group of students at Singularity University, the Matternet concept consists of a network of electric autonomous aerial vehicles (AAVs) that transport both people and supplies in areas where roads aren’t reliable. It may not be as fast as Evacuated Tube Transport or even high-speed rail, but it’s certainly faster than walking or biking in areas without all-season roads.

Members of the original Matternet team have a prototype for an open-source unmanned autonomous aerial system (another group is working on a proprietary model). This summer, the open-source team will work with partners to show off a courier prototype at Burning Man that can operate in environments with high temperatures, low humidity, and high winds—and can deliver 3-D printed goods to anyone in a two-kilometer diameter.

As we reported when Matternet was first announced, the startup has an endorsement from inventor and Singularity University cofounder Ray Kurzweil, who said: "The developed world has a huge lead over the developing world in infrastructure but our strategy should be to leapfrog these already obsolete and crumbling systems with 21st-century solutions. That’s what we did with phone systems as developing societies went right to wireless and will never put in a wired land line system. Bits are already being widely distributed to emerging economies. Matternet will do that for atoms."