Hype Builds Before Elon Musk’s August Alpha Plan for SF to LA Hyperloop

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SH 151_#1 BIG

I liked going to the bank drive-through with my mom as a kid. She’d send her checks to the teller inside by shooting a cylinder through a pneumatic tube. I always wanted a ride in that thing. And while there remains a woeful shortage of pneumatic tubes transporting people at the moment—that unhappy state of affairs may not last forever.

Elon Musk, the billionaire tech mogul behind PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX and the entrepreneur who wants to colonize Mars with a vertically landing, reusable rocket—that guy—recently announced he’s been busy thinking about building a pneumatic tube to shuttle people from SF to LA at 600+ mph. He calls it the Hyperloop.

When asked to describe the Hyperloop at D11, Musk told the audience that if the Concorde had a three-way with a railgun and an air hockey table—the Hyperloop would be their baby. Let's pause a moment to let that analogy settle in. Pithy, colorful, a touch awkward. No writer could hope for better. (It’s like a dirty Warren Buffett quote.)

Musk says he came up with the idea when contemplating California’s high-speed rail project between San Francisco and Los Angeles. He notes the project may produce the slowest high-speed train in the world, the most expensive per mile—and we can do better. That’s where the Hyperloop comes in. Musk modestly claims it could be the fifth mode of transportation, right up there with boats, planes, trains, and automobiles.

The Hyperloop would transport passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about 30 minutes and at about twice the average speed of a commercial jet. The system would be on-demand, cheaper than current alternatives, impossible to crash, and potentially, run entirely on solar power. No big deal.

There are, of course, a few details missing from the discussion at this point. Besides some hints here and there—no one knows specifically how this thing works or exactly what it is even. Only someone of Musk’s reputation could stir up this much excitement with so little to back it up.

In a detailed rumination on Gizmag, Brian Dodson, a rocket scientist and physicist, hypothesizes that “the Hyperloop is essentially a pneumatic transport system (PTS) in the form of a closed tube that loops between Los Angeles and San Francisco.”

SH 151_#2Travelers ride in pods magnetically accelerated and decelerated into the main tube (like a rail gun) where the air circulates at speed. The air between pods acts as a cushion, preventing crashes, while more air injected through perforations in the tube levitates the pods and reduces friction, much as it might on an air hockey table.

Another speculator, John Gardi, got Musk's blessing on Twitter for his hypothetical Hyperloop design (see here), "Your guess is the closest I've seen anyone guess so far."

For the record, this is not, in general, a new idea. Jules Verne imagined pneumatic tubes replacing trains and crossing oceans in his 1863 story Paris in the Twentieth Century. And remember George Jetson entering his home by tube?

No, not new. But this is the one of the first times someone with such credentials has actually proposed building such a machine. The first time, that is, since Alfred Ely Beach suggested a pneumatic subway for New York in 1869, or more recently and closer to home, when LK Edwards pitched a Bay Area Gravity-Vacuum Transit system in 1967.

Thing is, the longer an idea lives in pop culture and science fiction, the more fringe it can seem. But that doesn't mean it won't happen. Sometimes it's just been waiting for the right combination of technology and cojones. And Musk has executed two giant ideas—high-performance electric cars and low-cost rocketry—in the last decade. He tends to take big concepts and make them reality in one form or another.

Half of me expects the Hyperloop by 2025. The other half expects Musk to sequester himself in a hotel room, forgo cutting his fingernails, and quietly retire to Earth orbit (or Mars) just as SETI receives humanity’s first message of extraterrestrial origin.

Whether or not the Hyperloop is Musk’s Spruce Goose remains to be seen. But I suspect we’ll be writing about it again very soon. It’s hard to ignore back-of-the-napkin musings from wild, billionaire geniuses—never mind resisting the “alpha plan” for Elon Musk’s mysterious Hyperloop.

Image Credit: Moyan Brenn

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 21 Responses

  • Susan Witton July 21, 2013 on 9:56 am

    Hilarious! I did a “Rapid Underground Transit Scheme” as my final year high school project, complete with 48 pages of calculations and some thoughts on using recycled products. Did I mention I got the idea from Scientific American magazine? This would have been 1992.. Also, I got 65% because the teacher thought I was nuts..

  • Aaron Fairchild July 21, 2013 on 10:29 am

    He should just get on board with ET3; they’re already developing something even better, and with the same route in mind.

    • randerwolf Aaron Fairchild July 21, 2013 on 10:53 pm

      I know, right? The only thing interesting about this story to me is knowing “has he simply not heard of E3” and “is his idea fundamentally different or better than E3” and “Why haven’t we started building E3 yet” 😀

      • randerwolf randerwolf July 21, 2013 on 10:57 pm

        I mean ET3, for those who haven’t heard of it: Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies or ET3 for short; it would be much cheaper to build and to maintain than either air travel routes or paved highways, as well as faster, and could be used to transport passengers or goods at anywhere from hundreds to thousands of miles per hour, fast enough to get from NYC to Beijing in a few hours. http://www.et3.com and no I don’t work for them, I just think it is a cool & smart thing to do.

        • Markus Roder randerwolf July 23, 2013 on 5:03 am

          Nice idea, yes. But ET3 is simply not serious if they really think they can build their system at the advertised cost, and I highly suspect they are a 5 man “license giver operation”, not a serious partner that a “mover” like Musk would align himself with.

          For one thing, the simply do not say how they propose to maintain the vacuum in their tubes, which over even hundreds of miles reliably (let alone thousands) is, with current tech, simply impossible.

  • frankiebishop July 21, 2013 on 4:33 pm

    – I’ve been a supporter of Evacuated Tube Transport for years. This is not a Musk innovation as is the electric car, however, he does have the financial resources. Modern day transportation systems are inefficient and getting more unsafe. Back in the 90s, a newspaper conducted a race between a car and commercial jet flight from SF to LA. The car won.

    More info on Evacuated Tube Transport is available from the actual creators at ET3 dot com.

    • randerwolf frankiebishop July 21, 2013 on 11:01 pm

      Good points, and also I just listened to an interview with the guy behind ET3, who mentions that one of the big challenges you wouldn’t think was so important is actually nailing down the standardized capsule size so that tubes around the world can be intercompatible. I wonder if Musk starts doing this and ET3 builds at the same time if there won’t be a big headache ahead with the two systems not meshing together? Or are they maybe just two totally separate things the same way airlines and freeways are, i.e. one must leave their car behind to board a plane.

    • Markus Roder frankiebishop July 22, 2013 on 9:27 am

      Did you even read the article? Musks tube is NOT evacuated, avoiding the biggest problem ET3 has: Maintaining a vacuum over hundrrds of miles reliably, which with current tech is simply impossible.

      • Nemanja Stijak Markus Roder July 23, 2013 on 4:43 am

        Does really nobody see the problem in air rushing though pipes in supersonic speeds?!? It seams to me as much bigger problem then maintaining vacuum. Also – if it breaks – with all that air rushing it seams much more dangerous.

        • Markus Roder Nemanja Stijak July 23, 2013 on 5:08 am

          Which is why Musk never brought up supersonic speeds. I think Hyperloop will just run below 600 mp/h, in order to avoid (most) problems with inelastic shockwaves.

          And: The benefits of a moving air column actually vastly outweigh those of a vacuum (once you accept the limited top speed). “Safety air cushions between the capsules” for one thing, from which the claim “cannot crash” originates. Another thing is the higher amount of stored energy WITHIN the system, which can be extracted (by turbines) at night, smoothing out power generation and actually making the hyperloop (when run on solar) a highly elastic power plant.

          • Nemanja Stijak Markus Roder July 23, 2013 on 5:33 am

            Still – 600 mph is just a little bit slower then commercial airliner. And they fly at 40 000 to minimize air resistance. With air at see attitude resistance would still be huge. And on the entire tunnel – not just on vehicle – like with the plane…

            And to assure safe stopping with less then 3g in the event of accident separation would have to be at least 200 s – I don’t know what them aim for. ET3 promises unrealistic 0.125 s

  • Abby Digital July 22, 2013 on 4:46 am

    Animation of the Beach Pneumatic Transit of 1870:

  • Nemanja Stijak July 23, 2013 on 4:58 am

    Supersonic air in tunnel? Anybody? There is not material which can withstand temperatures reached by such resistance. And energy losses by resistance would be huge. Even supersonic airplanes built from titanium can do it only at very high attitudes (50 000+ feet) where air is very rare.

    ET3 seams much more realistic from theoretical perspective. And they try to market it as good from practical perspective as well. Cheaper then motorway. But, I don’t believe them until I see it in the practice. Also some figures are very strange. Like projected safe separation is 0.125 s. 8 trains per second and they consider it safe?!? what if something breaks down – how many trains will crash into each other???

    • Markus Roder Nemanja Stijak July 23, 2013 on 5:09 am

      None, as they will simply compress the air in between them.

      • Nemanja Stijak Markus Roder July 23, 2013 on 5:25 am

        0.125 is separation of vacuum based ET3. But even with air of hyperloop problem is not solved. There is only so much g forces human can withstand. And stopping from 600 mph in 0.125 s is something like 200 g which is deadly.

        • Markus Roder Nemanja Stijak July 23, 2013 on 5:51 am

          You are talking a crash (distance between cars / time to standstill). In that case, passengers are f*ed in both concepts, ET3 AND Hyperloop. At these speeds, there is simply nothing you can do.

          I was, however, talking, about a much more likely simple technical malfunction like a power failure . In that case ETT might go into possible catastrophic failure, since cars can and will crash into each other without active guidance, while hyperloop cars would simply “passively” coast along, separated by the air cushion between them.

    • frankiebishop Nemanja Stijak July 23, 2013 on 5:22 am

      Yes correction…Musk’s system is the opposite, which through logical deduction doesn’t seem feasible. It’s much more feasible to create a vacuum than to pump air into tubes going at supersonic speeds. What needs to be done is some scale prototyping of all systems to find the proper synergy of combined technologies. A project like this is too important to be hoarded by some tech tycoon.

      • Markus Roder frankiebishop July 23, 2013 on 5:51 am

        Who said “supersonic”? Musk is talking slightly subsonic.

        • frankiebishop Markus Roder July 24, 2013 on 4:39 pm

          Whoops…my error. Subsonic? Why bother? We already have functional subsonic mass transit both in the air and on the ground. If we can’t smoke at supersonic speeds as ET3 encourages, than why even bother? But, then again, it would make great media hype for Musk. He seems to enjoy it and so does the media. I wish they had given Stanley Meyers or Nikola Tesla as much media attention as they do Musk.

  • Charles Jones July 26, 2013 on 2:35 am

    I hadn’t heard of the et3 before, but that kind of transportation has been on my mind. Started after I read the artical http://singularityhub.com/2012/11/10/and-now-even-miners-are-getting-robots/ Why not have automated robots make the tunnels under ground for us. Currently 20meters a day isn’t bad for just one set of mining bots. The entry and exit for the tunnels could even be slopped to help with excellerating and deceleration. I also thought it better that the main bored out tunnel would contain several transportain tunnels, and a service/emergency tunnel. I’m don’t think the risk of earthquakes is much different below ground as above? Anyway, this seemed the best place to add my $.02