It almost sounds like an idea from a Jules Verne science fiction novel, but Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of Tesla Motors and Space X, wants to create a system of tubes linking major cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles in which passengers could be propelled at speeds of as much as 700 mph.
The system, Musk said in an online proposal, would be called the Hyperloop, and would be somewhat similar to the pneumatic tubes used at banks and stores to move paperwork around. The concept would borrow some of the technology developed for maglev trains – though operate at twice the speed. And it could eliminate some of the hassles and delays of air travel, according to Musk.
Short of figuring out real teleportation, which of course be awesome (someone please do this), the only option for super fast travel is to build a tube over or under the ground that contains a special environment,” wrote Musk, the Internet entrepreneur who is fond of laying out his ideas in Twitter and blog postings.
The idea of using tubes to transport people isn’t entirely new. In fact, the very first New York subway was an oversized version of the pneumatic tube system – soon replaced by more conventional rails. The concept has shown up since in a number of science fiction epics.
But Musk wants to see the “Hyperloop” turned into reality and laid out a vision of what that might mean in a conference call. To propel a highly aerodynamic vehicle through a tube would require a carefully crafted environment in which the capsules would be launched by a catapult and then float on a thin cushion of air, much like on an air hockey table.
The capsules would accelerate and continue onto their destinations using similar magnetic forces as those that propel MagLev trains such as the ones now operating in several parts of China. But by reducing the air pressure within the tube, Musk suggested, the capsules could operate at nearly the speed of sound.
He envisions launching a capsule every 30 seconds, with 28 people onboard – and for a price of just $20. That would be a fraction of the cost of an airplane ticket and passengers wouldn’t have to suffer through air traffic and other delays.
In the plan, posted online at www.spacex.com/hyperloop, Musk puts the proposal’s cost for connecting San Francisco and L.A. at $6 billion – or barely a tenth the estimated price tag for a new high-speed rail line under development. The system he outlined would follow the widely traveled Interstate 5 that links the two cities.
The proposal appears to be generating quite a bit of buzz – though not all of it is positive – including 100s of thousands of searches and links on the Internet.
Among the skeptics was Dan Richard, Chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority that Musk’s proposal could challenge. He issued a statement suggesting that, “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.”
Meanwhile, the 57-page Hyperloop proposal drew a string of skeptics questioning some of its technical assumptions, such as the need for each capsule to carry a large load of water to act as a coolant.
“The biggest concern with this plan has to do with temperature,” wrote Sam Jaffe, in his research blog, Navigant. “The pod will be compressing air and expelling it downwards and backwards. All that air compression creates an enormous amount of heat, which can damage the pod and its machinery.”
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A similar concept for a “Very High Speed Transit System” was floated by the RAND Corp. back in the 1970s, and while it did outline a number of technical problems, a report in Business Insider notes there were no overwhelming obstacles beyond cost.
Proponents say modern electronics, materials and manufacturing techniques could turn that old VHST into reality.
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Musk has a penchant for overwhelming naysayers. He made a fortune on the Internet through ventures like PayPal and has since been focused on transportation and solar power projects. His Tesla Motors last week took investors and analysts by surprise with a profit rather than an anticipated loss. His Space X, meanwhile, has now achieved several successful unmanned supply missions to the International Space Station. Musk is hoping to be able to achieve manned flights in the near future, as well.