Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk is a proven genius at turning big ideas into real businesses—witness Tesla, his profitable electric car company, and SpaceX, which has pioneered private space flight.
But even Musk is probably in over his head with Hyperloop, his 57-page proposal for a futuristic Jetsons-style rail that travels 800 miles an hour and completes a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes.
Technologically, the designs for Hyperloop are intriguingly possible, experts say. But they’d face enormous challenges before anyone would get to hurdle alongside California’s I-5 in an air-cushioned "pod" sealed inside vacuum-like tube. "It does appear well-thought out," says David B. Clark, director of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Center for Transportation Research. "Obviously, there is nothing like this in the world today, so the feasibility is entirely unknown."
The biggest problem that Musk’s plan appears not to address is not "could we actually build this thing?" but "would we?" Musk has described Hyperloop as a cross between the Concorde, a rail gun, and an air-hockey table. But the Concorde, a supersonic transatlantic passenger jet, was a money-losing venture that ceased operations in 2003.
Ideas and designs for "vactrains," which are conceptually similar to Hyperloop, have been around for at least a century, says Wenlong Jin, an assistant professor of civil engineering at University of California, Irvine’s Institute of Transportation Studies. With advances in communications and materials technologies, he says, what once seemed crazy ideas are less so.
Reviewing Musk’s plan yesterday afternoon, however, he wondered whether the pylons needed to hold up the steel tubes would really bear the weight and said it would be an enormous feat to design the system to carry 70 pods (carrying 28 people each) on a line at once, each departing at 30-second intervals. Musk’s analysis says the system could move 7.4 million people a year each way, and would be better than airplanes for cities less than 1,000 miles apart.
"The biggest question is not how fast it can go, but whether it can really carry all those people. It would have to relieve congestion compared to slower forms of transportation," says Jin.
Clark’s research team has built maglev trains before, so if Musk’s technical analysis is correct, he believes he could "probably" build a prototype Hyperloop. But there would be no obvious funding source. Musk initially said he doesn’t have time to build Hyperloop, but after releasing the open-source plan yesterday, claimed he was considering it.
To build and fund what Musk outlined yesterday, much more than a prototype would be needed. "It’s going to take a tremendous amount of funding to build a demonstration project, and there aren’t many deep-pocketed individuals other than Mr. Musk to do it," says Mineta Transportation Institute director Rod Diridon, who once chaired the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board. An operational demonstration, he said, would be needed by regulators to compare key points like "cost-per-mile" and environmental impacts to other infrastructure alternatives.
For now, without any actual plans or demonstrations to work on, Musk has the freedom to depict Hyperloop’s economics and practicalities in the best possible light. Not only would a $20 SF to LA Hyperloop trip take 30 minutes, compared to almost three hours on the California’s high-speed rail line now being built, but the project could be completed in less than a decade for a mere $6 billion, according to the plans. Yesterday, Musk ripped California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project as "one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world."
Current California High-Speed Rail Authority Chairman Dan Richard wasn’t above a bit of trash talking in response. In an emailed statement to Co.Exist, he welcomed Musk’s ideas, but laid down a gauntlet: "If and when Mr. Musk pursues his hyperloop technology, we’ll be happy to share our experience about what it really takes to build a project in California, across seismic zones, minimizing impacts on farms, businesses and communities and protecting sensitive environmental areas and species."
No matter what, if Musk gets people thinking about what is possible, all the better. Diridon, who is considered the "father" of modern transit service in the massively congested Silicon Valley corridor, is a fan of Musk’s big ideas—continuing to run autos on increasingly jammed highways is not going to be an option forever, he says.