Last year, entrepreneur Elon Musk described an idea that would sound like an elaborate joke coming from anyone else: a self-powered transportation system that moves twice as fast as an airplane, is completely immune to weather-related disturbances, and can’t crash. This system, which Musk calls the Hyperloop, could purportedly whisk passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just half an hour, mainly following the I-5 freeway that runs across the state.
A utopian fantasy? Almost certainly. But Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and rocket-building company SpaceX, is known for making billions of dollars from seemingly impossible ideas (like building a profitable electric vehicle startup).
On August 12, Musk revealed more details of the Hyperloop design. Here’s what we know so far.
Engineers from both SpaceX and Tesla have been working on the design for the past 10 months or so. In the last few weeks, some employees have begun working on it full-time.
At 800 miles per hour, the aboveground Hyperloop system would be dramatically faster than a bullet train. It would be, according to Musk, a "fifth form" of transportation. The other four are boats, planes, trains, and automobiles.
In the past, Musk has said that the Hyperloop design is a "cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table." He told Businessweek that the designlooks like "a shotgun with the tubes running side by side for most of the journey and closing the loop at either end."
But in a newly released document, Musk outlines what the basic design would actually look like: a low-pressure steel tube (akin to a vacuum-sealed tube) that houses capsules which move back and forth, transporting cars and passengers. The aluminum capsules (or pods) would have skis on the bottom containing holes that pump out air, creating an air cushion. They would be propelled forward with magnets found on the skis as well as an electromagnetic pulse generated by a linear electric motor (below the skis), while other motors located at stations throughout the tube would keep the pods going. Riders could enter and exit along the length of the tube, or at either end. Where do you get a linear electric motor? How about Tesla?
Linear electric motors placed at each destination would slow the pods down by absorbing their kinetic energy. That energy would then be put back into battery packs and used to accelerate the next pods, or stored for future use. Solar panels on top of the tubes would also provide energy.
The pods, which have room for 28 people each, could leave every 30 seconds—transporting up to 7.4 million people on each route (S.F. to L.A. or vice versa) per year. Passengers would pay just $20 per trip in Musk’s vision, making the Hyperloop more reasonably priced than train, plane, or automobile.
Musk is keeping safety in mind. The system would have an emergency brake, and the pods would be spaced apart by five miles. He also claims that the Hyperloop would be completely earthquake safe, though he admitted on a press call: "If LA falls down, well then I guess the Hyperloop would too." In order to mitigate earthquake risk, the system would be built on pylons (the tube wouldn’t be rigidly fixed at any point). Adjustable lateral and vertical dampers would be placed inside the pylons to "absorb the small length changes between pylons due to thermal changes, as well as long form subtle height changes," according to Musk’s project outline.
He also believes that the ride would be bump and nausea-free. Musk said on the call: "Once you’re traveling the speed you wouldn’t notice the speed at all. It would be really smooth, like you’re riding on a cushion of air. Maximum G-force of about half a G, comparable to what you might feel in an airplane but far less than what you would feel in a rollercoaster. Really quiet."
The whole project would cost $6 billion if it contained "people-only pods," but would be priced at $10 billion if it had pods for both people and cars.
Don’t pack your bags just yet: the Hyperloop is not imminent—though Musk does want to work on a demonstration prototype at the very least. "Maybe I could just do the beginning bit, and hand it over to someone else," he said on the press call. If this was his top priority, he believes he could get a demo done in one to two years. But since he has other things going on (like building a nationwide Supercharger network for Tesla and launching satellites with SpaceX), he thinks he can finish a demo in three to four years. It would take seven to 10 years, Musk believes, for someone to build a full system running from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Musk is clearly conflicted about the role he wants to play in the Hyperloop project. While he now says he wants to be involved in creating a prototype, he sounded more reluctant when discussing the project earlier this summer.
"I think I kind of shot myself by ever mentioning the Hyperloop," he said during a recent Tesla earnings call, according to AllThingsD. "I don’t have any plans to execute, because I must remain focused on SpaceX and Tesla." In any event, the Hyperloop plans are open-source, and Musk said on the press call that "if somebody else goes and does a demo, that would be really awesome. I’d like to see something like this happen, and I don’t really care much one way or the other if I have any economic outcome here."
With the Hyperloop, Elon Musk is calling on inventors, engineers, and entrepreneurs to run with a crazy idea that has little chance of ever panning out. Musk has said that the project was inspired by the sad state of $70 billion California’s high-speed rail initiative—another ambitious project that may never be completed.
There’s little reason to believe that the Hyperloop would fare any better in dealing with the bureaucracy that has caused high-speed rail to stumble, if the technology even works. To Musk’s credit, he notes that the land issues that have plagued the high-speed rail project could be avoided because the elevated Hyperloop tubes would be mounted on columns that wouldn’t completely block farmers’ land, unlike train tracks. But $6 billion is far from cheap, and especially now that construction of the first piece of the high-speed rail project is set to begin relatively soon, it’s unlikely that another giant transportation project would be approved. Politics will always stand in the way.
In many respects, the Hyperloop resembles some of the wild predictions of 1950s futurists, who believed that we’d all be driving "atomic-powered" flying cars and taking regularly scheduled trips on rocket ships by now. Of course, rail travel once also seemed unbelievable. In 1825, England’s Quarterly Review wondered: "What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?" The Hyperloop, perhaps.