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An image released by Tesla Motors, is a sketch of the Hyperloop capsule with passengers onboard. rs)

An illustration shows the Hyperloop transport concept, which entrepeneur Elon Musk says could allow passengers to make the trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles in half an hour.

Tesla Motors, AP

Ker Than

For National Geographic News

Published August 13, 2013

Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk on Monday unveiled his long-awaited plans for a potentially revolutionary "fifth mode" of transportation. Dubbed the Hyperloop, the new mode of transport would complement planes, trains, cars, and boats as a means of travel.

Hyperloop involves shooting a solar-powered, aluminium pod that floats on a cushion of air through an elevated tube at near-supersonic speeds. The entire system resembles the pneumatic tubes that are used to shuttle paper between different parts of old buildings. (See related pictures: "Amazing Transportation Inventions.")

 

In a 57-page white paper released Monday, Musk estimates Hyperloop could traverse the 400-mile (640-kilometer) distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco in about half an hour while traveling at speeds of nearly 800 miles per hour (1,287 kilometers per hour).

 

Hyperloop capsule illustration
A conceptual drawing shows the Hyperloop's passenger capsule, which Musk says is immune to outside elements such as fog, ice, and rain.

Tesla Motors, AP

 

"Short of figuring out real teleportation, which would 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, who co-founded PayPal, and is the current CEO of the electric carmaker Tesla and the rocket-building company SpaceX. (See related blog posts: "In Tesla-NYT Spat, Cold Realities About Electric Cars" and "Tesla's Musk Promises to Halve Loan Payback Time to DOE")

The plans call for the Hyperloop track to run parallel to California's I-5 highway, and for it to be elevated on pylons so as to avoid traffic and complicated land purchase issues. Capsules could leave stations every 30 seconds, and carry 28 passengers each. Tickets would cost just $20 each way, according to Musk.

“That would be [fantastic], but the devil’s in the details,” said Mark Thompson, an electrical engineering professor at Worcester Polytechnic University and president of Thompson Consulting, Inc. in Massachusetts.

Thompson said he hasn’t seen anything in the white paper that would be a technological deal breaker preventing the Hyperloop from being built. In fact, Musk’s team drew upon mostly existing technologies when designing the system.

The trick will be combining the technologies in a novel way, Thompson explained. “I think the technology is feasible, but it’s an engineering challenge to make the thing work,” he said in an interview.

“The question is how, engineering-wise, you put those pieces together so that it’s safe and comfortable for passengers? … Nothing at this speed has ever been built for [land] transportation.”

Mixed Reactions

The response from the public and the press to Musk's science fiction-sounding idea was instantaneous, and fell largely into one of two camps. First, there are those who praised Musk for his vision and hope Hyperloop will become a reality.

Twitter user @TimothyEden wrote, "I think that the #Hyperloop is the most amazing thing ever. Please make it happen."

@Hugo_Lz was so excited that he simply tweeted, "@elonmusk => President ! Please !!!!!!!"

But amidst the praise has been a growing chorus of skeptics who are either underwhelmed by the plans or who are skeptical that Hyperloop can be built. Many compared the hype surrounding Hyperloop to the buzz that accompanied the debut of Segway scooter in 2001, which never really caught on with the public.

Twitter user @mozumder wrote, "I don't really see what the big deal is about the #hyperloop. Elon's report is on par with an undergrad thesis."

Richard White, a professor of American history at Stanford and author of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, was also skeptical.

"It doesn't seem plausible to me," White told The New York Times. "I'm suspicious about everything, especially cost."

Musk says he thinks his system can be built for $6-10 billion, depending on whether it will be able to transport cars or not.

"You can't even build the Bay Bridge for that much money," White said, referring to the still-unfinished renovations of the Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland, which are expected to cost $6.3 billion.

Twitter @RiaRomano worried about the safety of Hyperloop: "Is it just me or does anyone else think the Hyperloop sounds dangerous? No room for error at those speeds."

Safety Concerns

Musk acknowledges in his paper that there are risks, but argues that the system is safer than airplanes, trains, or automobiles.

For one thing, because Hyperloop's capsule will travel in an enclosed space, it will be immune to wind, ice, fog, and rain.

Furthermore, because the capsule will cover the vast majority of its route by coasting, it will not require continuous power, Musk writes. The capsule's life support system will be powered by two or more lithium ion battery packs and will not be affected by blackouts.

As in airplanes, oxygen masks can also be deployed inside the Hyperloop capsules in the event of a sudden depressurization.

"Once the capsule reached the destination safely it would be removed from service," Musk writes.

"In the unlikely event of a large scale capsule depressurization, other capsules in the tube would automatically begin emergency braking whilst the Hyperloop tube would undergo rapid re-pressurization along its entire length."

Because Hyperloop will be traveling through earthquake country, it would also be designed to withstand strong temblors.

"The entire tube length [will be] built with the necessary flexibility to withstand the earthquake motions while maintaining the Hyperloop tube alignment," Musk writes.

Another concern—from the standpoint of passenger comfort if not safety—are vibrations within the moving capsule, Thompson said.

“This thing is levitated and is subjected to forces when it’s accelerating,” Thompson said. “How is it going to vibrate going down the tube? And can you overcome the vibration problems in a lossless enough way so that it’s inexpensive and a comfortable ride.”

Oversimplifying?

Dan Richard, the chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, suggested Musk was oversimplifying the challenges.

Speaking to the Associated Press, Richard said, "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."

There is also the question of who would actually build the Hyperloop. Musk says he is so busy with his other companies that he does not have time to tackle the project now, but he hinted that he might pick up the challenge in a few years' time if there are no other takers.

CNET executive editor Molly Wood said that even if Hyperloop turns out to be "another Segway," just the fact that so many people are talking about it is significant.

"I remain thrilled because we are actually talking about a new idea and imagining the kind of future that we can and will have thanks to technology," Wood wrote.

"I'm thrilled because this is a conversation about solving big issues with big ideas and not with cautious, incremental, compromised, and cynical status quo concepts."

Follow Ker Than on Twitter.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

15 comments
Todd Ackley
Todd Ackley

I agree with Lou Stevens that the first step should be building a prototype where design aspects can be tested, but think that needs to be done quickly.  The federal government needs to take the lead on this.  This idea has incredible possibilities.  A national network could have benefits for our economy  similar to the building of the railroad system or the interstate highway system.  It might be a better infrastructure investment than high speed rail.  The initial costs might be somewhat higher, but it should be more energy efficient in the long run

Lou Stevens
Lou Stevens

The Hyperloop project sounds great from what i read, but before spending billions of dollars on this new system of transportation, wouldn't it be better to build a smaller version first to work out the challenges that such project might have to overcome? A prototype, where all the design aspects can be tested; e.g. vibration, earthquake simulations etc? With speeds of  800 mph, what effects would this have on average citizens body, what medical issues could arise? What if there was a malfunction of the system, where it couldn't be fixed at moment? What would the emergency evacuation procedures entail within each community along the route, if raised above the ground or under the surface, in a pressurized tube, between departure and arrival points?  Just questions I have and would be interested in having answered.

Tony Alvarado
Tony Alvarado

Hyperloop is just another high speed train system with distinct difference it’s in a tube. I think the time for a system like our BiModal Glideway which offers high speed travel with the ability to start a commute from home and continue to work without getting stuck in traffic or having to transfer onto a crowded city bus or commuter train, while leaving your car in a parking lot miles away from your workplace. I believe the better solution for high speed travel would be the BiModal Glideway!


Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

To me the best indication that Musk might be onto something is that the extreme right and left are both joining together to bash this idea. Well not so much joining together as that would imply their intelligent enough to work together, but for their own selfish reasons both extremes hate this idea.

Niel Mcneil
Niel Mcneil

"Dan Richard, the chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, suggested Musk was oversimplifying the challenges."

Shocking, the guy behind the massive tax suck that is a really slow train in the middle of nowhere has negative stuff to say about it.

CA High-Speed Rail Authority: "we'll be happy to share our experience about what it really takes to build a project in California,"

But we already know what it takes.  Unrealistic initial estimates that continue to inflate by the second and require that you hire the worst contractor with a bad safety record to do the work.   Meanwhile you have a new bureaucracy  that gets paid for plowing ahead with this folly.

MADHU THANGAVELU
MADHU THANGAVELU

The big problem with tunnel travel is you won't be able to see the landscape and enjoy the visual delights that Amtrak or other more conventional above ground transportation offers. I suggest Elon stick with rockets and electric cars.

Hung Nguyen
Hung Nguyen

Pee in your pants if you can't hold it for half an hour.....

William Visel
William Visel

funny, wasnt long ago no one thought we could fly, travel to space, Moon, mars. Where there is a will..... 

Bubba Nicholson
Bubba Nicholson

No isles, small cross-sectional area, pylons, cheaper tunnels/bridges, wow, I helped design this!  Great!   

Niel Mcneil
Niel Mcneil

@MADHU THANGAVELU 

Two different types of travel and one doesn't eliminate the other.  

If you want scenic and 7 hours you drive or take the regular train.  Want to get there fast and save 2 days of travel round trip?  Hope on the tube.

Zim Dabbas
Zim Dabbas

@MADHU THANGAVELU So you're saying that we should spend 10 times the amount on a project that would be completed in more than 20 years with costs that will keep going up on a train that no one will use so that people can have a "nice view"?  (2.5hours + 1.5 hours to get there and leave the stations is 4 hours, rather take a car to LA instead of a slow technologically backwards train) 


You want a nice view? Go use Amtrak, and if Amtrak happens to go fast enough to enter some kind of time wormhole that throws you back into the 80s, please stay there.

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