L.A. to San Fran in 30 Minutes? Can You Say Hyperloop?

Entrepreneur Elon Musk thinks bullet trains are too slow and expensive. He says he has a better idea: high-speed travel in tubes

Traveling in pods through tubes. Is this what Elon Musk has in mind?
Traveling in pods through tubes. Is this what Elon Musk has in mind? Image courtesy of ET3

Yes, he’s the founder of Space X, the first commercial venture to send a cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station.

And yes, he’s the co-founder of PayPal and chairman of SolarCity, the largest provider of solar power systems in the U.S.

And yes, he’s head of Tesla Motors, which produced the world’s first all-electric sports car, its first electric luxury car and actually turned a profit in the first quarter of 2013.

But earlier this week Elon Musk did something that made even some of his fans wonder if he’s about to fly a little too close to the sun. Or maybe that he’s spent a little too much time out in the sun.

What Musk did was tweet about an invention he calls the “Hyperloop,” promising that in less than a month, he’ll be revealing more details, including its design.

In case you missed it, Musk first started talking about the Hyperloop last summer, describing it as a “cross between a Concorde, a rail gun and an air hockey table,” and suggesting that a sun-powered tube could whisk vehicles between San Francisco and Los Angeles in half an hour.

He referred to it as the “fifth mode” of transporation,” but one that, as he sees it, could leave the other four–planes, trains, boats and cars–in the dust. Here’s what else he told Pando Daily in that interview:

“How would you like something that never crashed, was immune to weather, that goes three or four times as fast as the bullet trains we have now or about twice the speed of an aircraft, that would get you from downtown L.A. to downtown San Francisco in under 30 minutes and it would cost you much less than any other type of transportation.”

A few months later, he would tell Bloomberg News that the Hyperloop would also allow you to leave as soon as you arrive “so there is no waiting for a specific departure time.”

Sounds great. And I assume that you’ll also be able to get giant donuts that turn fat into muscle.

Wayback machine

Okay, that’s probably not fair. In truth, Musk’s idea is not all that far-fetched. As Business Insider pointed out recently, it sounds a bit like a 21st century version of a concept pitched by a Rand Corporation physicist named R.M. Salter way back in 1972. He proposed something he called Very High Speed Transit, or VHST, which was essentially an underground tube that could shoot pods from New York to Los Angeles in a little more than 20 minutes.

As Salter saw it, the vehicles would have been driven by electromagnetic waves much as a surfboard rides the ocean’s wave. The VHST would have used all its kinetic energy to accelerate, and that power would be returned when it decelerated, through energy regeneration.

It’s not clear how the Hyperloop would work–that’s what Musk will share next month. What is known is that a Colorado company named ET3 is working on a system using vacuum-sealed tubes that it says could propel capsules as fast as 4,000 miles per hour, while exposing passengers to the G-forces of an ordinary car ride. It’s been reported that ET3 hopes to have a three-mile test track functioning by the end of the year. But Musk is not known to have any connection to the company.

He promises that he won’t patent the Hyperloop concept, that he wants to keep it open source. Musk says he’s looking for “critical feedback” and that he’d welcome partners–so long as they’re like-minded.

As he tweeted on Monday “Happy to work with the right partners. Must truly share philosophical goal of breakthrough tech done fast w/o wasting money on BS.”

Coming sooner

There’s been news in the other modes of transportation recently, too. Here’s some of the latest.

  • You are here: Researchers at the Toyota Technological Institute in Chicago have devised a system that allows cars to know where they are without relying on GPS. By using two cameras and software that determines when and how the road curves, it can nail down a location by comparing the layout of the route and its intersections to a map of the area from OpenStreetMap. The designers claim that in 20 seconds, the system can figure out where you are, even if you’re in a tunnel.
  • Siri, I’ve met something new: GM announced recently that some of its new models rolling out later this year will come with their own apps store. Instead of living in a smartphone, these apps would be directly accessible from your car. It’s part of the accelerating trend 0f turning cars into moving smartphones, with the goal of not just creating another source of revenue for car makers, but also allowing dealers to stay connected to their customers. Among the possibilities: Diagnostic apps that can monitor your car’s condition and send e-mail or text alerts if it needs servicing, Internet radio apps for a more customized selection of music, or news, traffic, and weather apps for real-time information on what’s happening on the road ahead.
  • Talk fast, this is my stop: Coming soon to the Prague subway: A car on each train that’s set aside for singles. The idea is to give time-crunched singles a chance to meet up while riding to work or elsewhere. What’s not clear is how they’ll keep married lurkers out.
  • Pump it up: A team of Canadian engineers recently conquered one of aviation’s greatest challenges by designing a helicopter of sorts that is powered by a human pumping pedals. For their effort, they won the Sikorsky Prize, a $250,000 challenge that had gone unclaimed since it was first offered by the American Helicopter Society 33 years ago.
  • Is it me or did the window just try to sell me a car?: The British online broadcaster Sky Go, along with the German ad agency BBDO Düsseldorf, are planning to use a new technology that would allow windows on buses or trains to send ad messages directly into your brain. It works like this: When a commuter rests his or her head against a window, oscillations beamed into the glass are converted into sound through a process called bone conduction, and he or she will hear the ad message while other passengers remain oblivious.

Video bonus: No one’s quite sure what Elon Musk’s Hyperloop will be, but the closest thing to it may be the “evacuated tube transport” concept being developed by ET3. Now this is 21st century travel.

Video bonus bonus: It doesn’t look like any helicopter you’ve ever seen, but the Atlas gets airborne through one guy pedaling.

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