Inventor and smart human Elon Musk on Monday revealed alpha plans for his Hyperloop idea, a revolutionary transportation system that promises to shuttle people across great distances in very little time. It’s the most science fiction idea Musk has ever presented, yet the PayPal/Space X/Tesla founder is confident Hyperloop is very doable, and very affordable, too.
Musk has already admitted he was never going to build Hyperloop—not with other companies biding his time. But if some mad person does turn Musk’s idea into reality, people might one day be able to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just 30 minutes.
In an interview with BusinessWeek, Musk shares his vision for the Hyperloop system, and why he thinks it’s the better alternative over California’s proposed high-speed train—that’s just one example. Basically, Hyperloop would work by transporting people and or vehicles through aluminum pods enclosed inside of steel tubes. For a better visual, Musk said the design would look almost like shotgun barrels, running parallel (though separated by about 50 to 100 yards) and enclosed at the end, thus the loop name.
The pods themselves would be mounted on skis made of inconel, a trusted alloy used by SpaceX capable of withstanding high pressure and heat, BusinessWeek described. As air pumps through holes in the skies, an air cushion would be made; the front of the pod will have air jet inlets, a bit like what the Concorde uses. Air would then be compressed from the nose to the skis and pod cabin. Magnets and an electromagnetic pulse would give the pod its initial thrust, while reboosting motors along the way would keep the pod moving along—all of this without any sonic boom.
If built, and it works as Musk imagines, the pods going between L.A. and S.F. could travel up to 800 miles per hours; anything farther could potentially travel much faster. Musk says he sees the system being ideal for high-traffic areas about 1,000 miles apart, but beyond that he claims supersonic travel comes into the equation. Not only that, but Musk admits cost becomes a factor for anything above that 1,000 mark. “You don’t want to live in Tube Land,” Musk says. So, for now, no cross-country Hyperloop routes are all that feasible.
The tubes themselves would be elevated near the I-5, and because tracks aren’t actually laid down on the ground, wouldn’t pose any land issues. California’s proposed high-speed system has seen a lot of backlash not only for its price, but because it poses risks for agriculture; it’s also been called slow and way too expensive. Musk says Hyperloop would range from $6-$10 billion. The high-speed train project is expected to cost California $70 billion or more.
As for safety? Musk has heard of it. “There’s an emergency brake,” he says. “Generally, though, the safe distance between the pods would be about 5 miles, so you could have about 70 pods between Los Angeles and San Francisco that leave every 30 seconds. It’s like getting a ride on Space Mountain at Disneyland.” Musk imagines that riding on the Hyperloop would be quite pleasant. “It would have less lateral acceleration—which is what tends to make people feel motion sick—than a subway ride, as the pod banks against the tube like an airplane,” he says. “Unlike an airplane, it is not subject to turbulence, so there are no sudden movements. It would feel supersmooth.”
According to a handful of physicists, Hyperloop is definitely possible from a “technological standpoint.” Many if not all of the proposed technology is already used—them parks, etc.—Musk is just envisioning it on a grander scale. Musk reiterated his stance that he has no plans to bring Hyperloop into reality himself, but hopes someone else might take charge. “It is a question of finding the right person and team to get behind it,” Musk said.
Right now, the Hyperloop is preliminary, but open source. Musk is asking for anyone and everyone to provide feedback, give suggestions, correct mistakes, etc. Hopefully—hopefully!—someone will step up and make a prototype, and possibly commercialize the idea. Who’s going to be the one to start a Hyperloop Kickstarter?