Tesla Motors and SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk announced his plans Monday for the Hyperloop – a high-speed transportation system that, ideally, could take passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles for a fraction of the cost and faster than the $68 billion high-speed rail system scheduled to begin running in 2028. Musk has said the Hyperloop, as he envisions it, could get you from San Francisco to Los Angeles – about 350 miles – in about 30 minutes, traveling at about the speed of sound.
As exciting as all of that sounds, the key word here is “ideally.” Musk described the Hyperloop at the D11 conference in May, and the outline was less than scientific. “It’s a cross between a Concorde and a rail gun and an air hockey table. If they did a threeway and had a baby somehow,” said Musk, you’d have a kicking, screaming Hyperloop.
Musk calls the plans an “alpha design,” and requested “critical feedback” from the general public via Twitter back in July. Also, he is publishing the plans as open source, and said on a conference call with Tesla investors last week that he has no plans to build the Hyperloop himself. That’s not surprising, considering he already runs two other companies – rocket-builder SpaceX and Tesla – where he and his teams are tackling challenges in the commercial space flight and electric car markets.
Last week, Musk and fellow space-travel enthusiast and Virgin Group founder and chairman Richard Branson participated in a Google for Entrepreneurs “hangout,” live-streamed on YouTube. During the question-and-answer session, Musk opened the window a bit wider on his thought process.
“I originally started thinking about it when I read about California’s high-speed rail project, which was somewhat disappointing because it’s not a very high-speed rail,” said Musk of the plans for the nation’s first high-speed rail system, which would include stops in San Diego and Sacramento.
Musk went on to cite the project’s average speed and, as he saw it, less-than-direct proposed route. “So, it’s actually worse than, say, taking the plane.”
“Why would one want to do a big expensive project like that, which is slower than alternatives and will likely be more expensive than alternatives,” Musk asked rhetorically. “You want the future to be better than the past – or at least I do, quite a bit.”
He went on to say he envisioned the Hyperloop as a system that would transport people at “effectively faster than the speed of sound,” and that it would involve a tube with a partial vacuum.
The Hyperloop isn’t an entirely new idea. Business Insider reported in May that the Rand Corp. published a paper in 1972 by physicist Robert Salter proposing a high-speed transportation system called the Very High Speed Transit System. (In 1978, Salter also wrote a paper on a transplanetary subway system that could cross the United States in roughly an hour.)
Salter writes that the VHST could potentially take passengers from Los Angeles to New York in 21 minutes. The impediment wasn’t science, according to Salter, but politics.