At the D11 Tech Conference in 2013, Elon Musk gave an interesting interview. He talked at length about Tesla, his iconic electric car company; SpaceX, his private space company; and his concept of a hyperloop. What is a hyperloop? His simple answer was a cross between a Concorde, a rail gun and an air hockey table. The full answer is a little more complex and much more interesting.
Before going into what a hyperloop is, let’s talk about other types transit and what their limiting factors are.
First there are cars — automobiles. We’ll even throw in buses with this group. The biggest “pro” of this category is that its members tend to be readily available and able to go just about anywhere at any time. You don’t have to go to an airport and wait for a flight. You don’t have to schedule your trip well ahead of time. Cars give people a sense of freedom, unfettered by the limitations of other types of travel. The problems are many, however; we’ve just become very accustomed to them. I’ll leave out the whole environmental thing for now since eventually that will significantly go down due to such things as electric and hybrid cars. One of the biggest limitations is speed. A car is great for going across town, not so much for across country. Traffic is also a major issue. Roadways have only so much capacity and in some locations (most cities) that capacity is exceeded at rush hour. Cars are also not cheap for the individual.
Planes are a great mode of travel. They are very fast, able to carry passengers across the country in about five hours. Airports are fairly accessible. There are nearly 600 national and regional airports in the United States serving commercial traffic (non-charter) and more than 20,000 of all types. The problems with air travel are many, however. An airport takes an enormous amount of space. The city of Boulder, Colorado could fit into the footprint of Denver International Airport — twice! Air travel is also expensive unless you plan your trip well ahead of time. Then there is the whole security aspect and arriving at the airport hours ahead of time. And those middle seats– Lastly, while electric planes are now on the drawing boards, for the foreseeable future aircraft will continue burning fossil fuel.
Trains have largely gone out of style in the United States for long range travel. Amtrack is not very available, is slow and not efficient. Light rail and subways transport a tremendous number of travelers every day, but by their nature are limited to local travel. High speed rail is gaining popularity in areas outside the United States. Able to carry large numbers of passengers at speeds topping 200 mph, bullet trains are efficient, reasonably fast modes of travel. But such projects are falling prey to political predators inside our country. High speed rail is also very expensive. Track price can top a staggering $200M per mile!
So now onto the hyperloop. The brainchild of Elon Musk, it aims to solve a number of the problems associated with various forms of travel between cities. What is it? Picture the front of a Concord (a pod) placed into a tube, pulled along by a linear induction motor (see what that is below) and supported on a thin layer of air like a puck on an air hockey table. The tubes are kept at very low pressure so the pods can be pulled through much more easily with much less power.
Wow, okay, so why is this better?
First, the individual pods are small and can be shot about at relatively low cost. They don’t have to have costly propulsion systems–they are pulled through the tube by those linear induction motors I mentioned above which are placed at intervals along the “track.” They are also inexpensive to operate individually. And the cost of the track? About $45M per mile, a lot less than the $200M I mentioned above.
Second, since they are relatively small, schedules can be more akin to a subway (even more frequent) than an airline. The pod pulls up to the boarding station, some number of people quickly jump on board and take their seats, and the pod shoots off. Thirty seconds later the next one pulls up, etc. Combined with the low cost of both production and operation, there is no need to fill each to capacity so it doesn’t hurt to have one head out half-filled like it does with an airplane.
Third, they are fast–real fast. Your typical airliner cruises at somewhere above 500 mph. But to get there it has to spend a chunk of time boarding the plane, navigating the runway, waiting for takeoff, climbing to cruise altitude, descending at the end of the flight, etc. The design speed of a hyperloop pod is a staggering 760 mph! And that is reached less than a minute after boarding. A flight from San Francisco to LAX takes about an hour and 20 minutes. Then you have to be at the airport an hour ahead of time, plus 15 minutes for parking, etc. So to travel to LAX it would take about two and a half hours, best case, from the time you arrive at the airport. You could do it in around 30 minutes in a hyperloop pod. I spend more time than that on BART getting into downtown San Francisco from the East Bay.
Imagine now what this does for quality of life. Gone are the exorbitant living expenses associated with living close to a major city (and your job). Instead of paying $1M for postage-stamp-sized lot near New York, buy 10 acres in Maine on the coast and commute into the city every day. I’ll take that.
When multiple high speed rail projects continued to get shot down by lobbyist-initiated political attacks I was sorely dismayed. One such project was in Florida where the project to connect Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville by high speed rail was killed by then Governor Jeb Bush. I still remember the wording on the ballot:
“This amendment repeals an amendment in the Florida Constitution that requires the Legislature, the Cabinet and the Governor to proceed with the development and operation of a high speed ground transportation system by the state and/or by a private entity. The probable financial impact of passage of this amendment is a state cost savings ranging from $20 billion to $25 billion over the next 30 years.”
Really? Nothing about that this kills the high speed rail project? Nothing about the economic gains high speed rail brings to the state? Nothing about the fact that it was voted in by the population in the last election? Then when federal funds were made available to build the line between Orlando and Tampa, Governor Rick Scott rejected them. This is why I hate politics and politicians. A new, privately funded, project is now underway between South Florida, Orlando and Tampa, but it only goes 125 mph. Booo.
Perhaps one day a hyperloop line will replace the once-planned high speed rail line and be an even better solution, albeit more than a decade or two later. Perhaps we’ll see hyperloop stations not only between nearby cities, but between transportation hubs across the country and world. Two companies are attacking the issue head-on: Hyperloop Technologies, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, and Elon Musk’s own SpaceX, which is building a prototype track.The opportunities brought by this technology are staggering.
Photos courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Hyperloop Technologies.