When a guy has already made billions, launched rockets into space, and created a profitable electric-vehicle manufacturer, even the wackiest thing he has to say is likely to get a lot of attention. Today, Tesla Motors Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk unveiled his plans for the Hyperloop, a high-speed transportation system that could whisk passengers at up to 800 miles per hour at a cost Musk says is about 10% of California’s proposed high speed rail plan. While Musk admits he won’t be the one to build it — he’s too busy with Tesla and SpaceX — it seems likely his white paper is going to touch off a great deal of debate in California and elsewhere about the feasibility of the Hyperloop. California is set to break ground on its train imminently, but questions about funding and political uncertainty have given that project a murky future. Is the Hyperloop really an alternative?
Silicon Valley style
Like many who live here, Musk found himself skeptical of the California rail plan. “The underlying motive for a statewide mass transit system is a good one. It would be great to have an alternative to flying or driving, but obviously only if it is actually better than flying or driving,” he wrote in his post detailing the Hyperloop. The rail authority proposes spending nearly $70 billion over the next 16 years to provide a roughly $200 round-trip that takes 2 hours and 40 minutes each way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Musk wants to cut the cost of building by 90% and take the time down to 30 minutes.
His Hyperloop, he says, will do just that. Using a pair of long, steel tubes with solar panels mounted atop of them, Musk’s Hyperloop would have small pods riding inside it, leaving every 2 minutes, that could carry people or even vehicles, in a slightly more expensive design. He envisions people coming in a continuous flow, unlike air travel, getting security checked and then boarding their pod, which would ride on a cushion of air generated through rails built into each of them. The pods would then knife through the thin atmosphere of the tubes. While that design doesn’t call for a vacuum in the tubes — Musk says that would be prohibitively expensive and very challenging to maintain — the air would be about 1/6 as dense as that on Mars Mars. Air resistance increases with the square of speed, and since the Hyperloop will reach 800 miles per hour on much of its journey, keeping resistance to a minimum is critical.
Simple route, low cost
To keep costs low, Musk suggests building the Hyperloop on elevated pylons that would follow major freeways. Spaced about 100 feet apart and 20 feet high, these could track along Interstate 5 for much of the journey and cross into the San Francisco Bay Area along the I-580 corridor. This would minimize the need to acquire expensive land and also cut the system’s environmental footprint. The high speed rail system will need a right of way about 100 feet wide and will be challenging to cross in some places, requiring fencing to keep people and livestock from wandering onto the tracks. Musk believes the Hyperloop will have few of these issues due to its design.
Because the speeds get significant, the Hyperloop isn’t very good at making sharp turns, at least not with giving passengers second thoughts about eating beforehand. To mitigate those effects, Musk and the team that helped him design the system called for some limited tunneling and deviations from following the highway where appropriate. Those add some cost, but still leave his cost estimates at one-tenth that of the rail plan.
Lest anyone be concerned that these elevated tubes are running through earthquake country, Musk’s vision accounts for that too. The pylons — like many structures in California — are designed to give with changes in the ground beneath them and the system has built in fail safes to bring vehicles to a stop when needed. He believes the basic design is simple enough to allow for a 100-year system life, though there will be some ongoing maintenance of the pylons and tube to ensure everything is working as intended.
Musk believes the system could carry people each for $20 per person, less than the cost of gasoline to drive and far cheaper than flying (especially last-minute air travel, which is now typically $199 each way). He sees future extensions of the system out to Sacramento, San Diego and Las Vegas and believes it would be the most cost effective form of transportation for any city pairs closer than about 900 miles apart. In the U.S., that would make is potentially attractive between Boston and Washington, D.C.; in the Texas cluster between San Antonio, Houston and Dallas; through much of Florida and potentially other high-density regions.
A long road to reality?
Of course, the path from white paper to transportation system is a long one. Musk references similar designs to his Hyperloop from the Rand Corporation and ET3 that have been tossed around for decades but have never even reached the prototype stage. His design differs in that it doesn’t rely on much tunneling or a vacuum as the others do nor does it seem to need a technological breakthrough. Martin Simon, a physics professor at UCLA, told BusinessWeek, ”It does sound like it’s all done with known technology. It’s not like he’s counting on something brand new to be invented.”
But he is counting on others to pick up the ball at this point and whether they will or not is another matter. The California High Speed Rail Authority ostensibly could build the entire Hyperloop on the money it already has committed, but doing so would mean abandoning most stops in the state’s central valley, with the possible exception of one in Fresno. It would also mean putting a halt to the existing plan, which was finally approved last year after much controversy. The politics of such a shift might be more daunting than the task of raising tens of billions of dollars to complete the existing plan.
In the weeks ahead, it seems certain Musk’s idea will get picked apart by the technologists as well as the politicians. If it passes muster, it could prove to be a game changer. Or it could join the flying car and the transporter as mostly the stuff of science fiction.