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Could Elon Musk's Hyperloop Derail High-Speed Rail?

Two years of background work by the Tesla Motors and SpaceX founder reveals an affordable, open-source alternative to California's proposed high-speed rail.

by / August 13, 2013

Getting from California to China could become a trip that takes less than two hours within Elon Musk’s lifetime. On August 12, Musk, founder of SpaceX and co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, revealed his plan for a new transport system that is far cheaper and faster than high-speed rail, outlining tentative details for a possible San Francisco to Los Angeles route that reaches top speeds of 760 mph. Musk has previously described Hyperloop as a cross between a “Concorde, a railgun, and an air hockey table.”

Musk released a 57-page
document outlining an alpha-stage plan for Hyperloop. The South African entrepreneur also fielded questions from reporters around the world on his vision. The document contains pictures of what the pneumatic-tube system and vehicles might look like, possible approaches to various engineering problems, an itemized budget for a California route totaling just $6 billion, maps of proposed routes and network expansions, and technical diagrams and explanations of various technologies that would be integrated into the system.

 A Hyperloop connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles could be constructed within seven to 10 years for $6 billion, Musk said, adding that California’s proposed $70 billion high-speed rail system is a mistake. Musk’s financial model would price a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Los Angeles at about $20 per person. The trip would last just 35 minutes.

Musk explained that Hyperloop is a “low priority” for him now as he is busy with SpaceX and Tesla Motors, and that is partially why the project relies on an open-source model. The project is also open-source, Musk said, to attract interest and leverage ideas from as many people as possible. During the press conference, he repeatedly emphasized the importance of someone developing a prototype of the technology to work out engineering problems -- a task he said he will probably take on himself.

While the document released shares many ideas developed by SpaceX and Tesla Motors engineers, nothing is set in stone yet, Musk said, and that’s why it’s an alpha.
Government Technology participated in Musk’s telephone media question and answer session as Musk explained the project as it now stands. Here is an abridged transcript of the call:

What will the experience of being on Hyperloop feel like?

It would actually feel a lot like being in an aeroplane. There would be initial acceleration, and once you’re traveling at speed, you wouldn’t really notice the speed at all. It would be extremely smooth, like you’re riding on a cushion of air. You wouldn’t feel lateral acceleration because the pod would bank against the side of the tube, so the g-force would always point down. With a maximum g-force of around a half a G of increase, so that’s also comparable to what you would see on an aeroplane and far less of what you would see on, say, a rollercoaster. It should just feel real super smooth and quiet. And obviously there’d never be any turbulence or anything.

I heard you say this could never crash. How could that be in earthquake country?

Well, obviously “never” is a very strong word. It’s extremely difficult, I suppose. Unlike an aeroplane, it’s not moving in three dimensions. It’s not going to fall out of the sky, nor can it really be derailed as a train can. The thought I had was in the pylons upon which the tube is mounted to have earthquake dampeners sort of similar to those sort of things you have in buildings in California. They’re like basically shock absorbers and they have two laterally mounted and one vertically mounted in the post. Now, there’s going to be some earthquakes that are gigantic that can overcome the dampeners, but then we have that same problem in buildings, so if LA falls down, I guess Hyperloop will, too. But relative to say, a train, it should be quite a bit safer.

What is the likelihood of this actually being built?

I’ve been thinking about that and I’m somewhat tempted to make at least a demonstration prototype and I’ve come around a bit on my thinking here to create a sub-scale version that’s operating and then hand it over to somebody else. I think that some of the more difficult things is just ironing out the details at a sub-scale level. I think I’ll probably end up doing that. It just won’t be immediate because in the short term I’m focused on SpaceX and Tesla.

If somebody else goes and does a demo, that would be really awesome. And I hope somebody does, but if it doesn’t look like that’s happening or it looks like that’s not happening in the right way, then I would. I don’t really care much one way or the other if I have any economic action here, but it would be cool to see a new form of transport happen.

While planning this project with SpaceX and Tesla engineers, did you talk a lot about power consumption?

Quite a fundamental question is, ‘Can you contain enough energy in a battery pack in a pod to pump the air from front to rear?’ And we can. In fact, if we just use some version of the [Tesla] Model S motor, maybe a few of them in series, and the Model S battery back, assuming today’s current technology, we can make it work.

[A more technical outline of Hyperloop’s power system can be found in the Hyperloop Alpha pdf.]

There has been talk of using solar power for Hyperloop as sustainability is one of its core features. Is this a viable option?

There’s actually way more surface area on the top of the tube than you really need. If you did actually put solar panels on the whole thing, you would have to dump the power somewhere, because you would have more than you can consume.

Why can Hyperloop be supported by pylons whereas high-speed rail requires a much stronger foundation?

It’s a weight thing. This was designed to be super-light and trains are just amazingly heavy. They don’t try very hard to make trains light. Yeah, [laughing] trains are heavy. This is designed more like an aircraft.

How many people and for how long did they work on coming up with this project?

There were probably in total a little over a dozen people working on it, but it was very much a background task. This was not something that was anybody’s full-time job. I started thinking about it maybe two years ago and then started involving others about ten months ago. And we’ve just been batting it around in the background, and in the last basically few weeks we did allocate some full-time days to it.

What do you think of California’s proposed high-speed rail project?

Um, I don’t think we should do the high-speed rail thing, because it’s currently slated to be roughly $70 billion but if one ratio is the cost at approval time versus the cost at completion time… you know most large projects escalate quickly… I think it’s going to be north of $100 billion. And then it seems it’s going to be less desirable to take that than take a plane, so California taxpayers aren’t just going to have to pay $100 billion, they’re also going to have to maintain and subsidize the ongoing operation of this train for a super long time as kind of California’s AmTrak. That just doesn’t seem wise for a state that was facing bankruptcy not that long ago.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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