By 13 August 2013 | Categories: news


What do you do when you are not looking to the stars? If you are South African born entrepreneur and billionaire Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, you may spend your time dreaming up the Hyperloop transportation system.

This, according to a recent unveiling by Musk, would enable passengers to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in about half an hour, almost a third of the time it takes to do so by airplane and a far cry from the five plus hours accomplishing the trip requires by car.

He explained that his Hyperloop would conceivably be able to transport both people and cars inside pods contained within aluminum tubes at 1280 km/hour. The pods, which would contain 28 people each, would be ‘shot’ through a low pressure steel tube. The idea was apparently inspired by the pneumatic tubes used to transport mail within buildings. If that visual doesn’t appeal, then the proposed system has also been described as a “cross between a Concorde, rail gun, and air hockey table.”

This would bridge the 640 km between the two cities and, if Musk’s calculations are correct, could apparently transport as many as almost seven and a half million people every year.

The Fifth Mode

While California currently has a high speed rail project on the table, on his blog, Musk explains that he was quite disappointed in the idea. He pointed out that, while it would “be great” to have an alternative to flying or driving, it needs to actually be better than flying or driving.

“The train in question would be both slower, more expensive to operate (if unsubsidized) and less safe by two orders of magnitude than flying,” asserted Musk.

Additionally, Musk believes that an alternative form of transport – a fifth mode after planes, trains, cars and boats – should carry with it significant benefits. These should include being safer, faster, lower cost, more convenient, immune to weather, sustainably self-powering, non-disruptive and particularly pertinent to the stretch of coastline, resistant to earthquakes.

To this end, he elaborated that the hypersonic system could fit the bill, running on an elevated tunnel of sorts alongside California’s Interstate 5 highway.

Science fiction or pure potential?

Admittedly, the plan at first sounds like pure science-fiction, the kind of transport system you would find in a Judge Dredd movie. However, the more you read Musk’s 58 page treatise, the more conceivable, and in fact, sensible, the system seems. A physics professor quoted by BusinessWeek also gave the proposed system the nod, pointing out that the Hyperloop appears to take advantage of known technology while capitalising on certain elements used in roller coaster rides.

In fact, the Hyperloop seems more than a little reminiscent of a very fast rollercoaster, albeit one not doing loops or plunging into death-defying vertical descents.

To the point

Appealing and futuristic as it all sounds, the question is whether California would actually go this route and opt for it over a conventional rail system. We suspect that, if it does, this could bode well as a pioneer project for other cities to follow in its footsteps.

While Musk has made the plans open source and invited others to pick up the baton to develop a prototype, of late, he has wavered as to the extent of his involvement. At first, he cited plenty on his plate already with SpaceX and the Tesla Motors, and then later indicated he may be willing to fund at least the beginning stages.

For the time being though, it looks like the Hyperloop system is a distinct possibility, rather than a firm likelihood. However, there is something poetically fitting about this particular dream starting with a man made famous for casting his eyes to the stars.


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