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Elon Musk unveils 'Hyperloop' high-speed shuttle

Tesla founder claims travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles will take only 35 minutes via a sealed tube.

By AutoWeek Aug 13, 2013 6:17AM

Elon Musk has been teasing us with something called the Hyperloop for a while now, referring to some Goldbergian cross between a railgun and an air hockey table that would zoot us and scoot us from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a half-hour. Now, in a 57-page PDF available here or here, he's outlined just what Hyperloop could be.

Bad news? By the calculations Musk has put together in conjunction with his teams at Tesla and SpaceX, it'll take more than a half-hour to get from the Golden Gate to the City of Angels. The time required will be a whopping 35 minutes.

Boiled down, Hyperloop would work like this: first, you'd build a bunch of pylons roughly following the route of I-580 out of San Francisco and over the Altamont Pass into the San Joaquin Valley. Continue building pylons along the I-5 corridor to the foot of the Tehachapis -- largely in the median of the Interstate.

Over the Tejon Pass and down into Santa Clarita, the Hyperloop path may deviate some from the road's right-of-way and run through a tunnel here or there. Once you've got your pylons and tunnels, you'll take a bunch of prefabricated steel tubes and weld them together.

If you just want to carry people from SF to LA, you'll only need a tube with a 7.4-foot inner diameter. If you'd like to carry vehicles as well (something Musk called “Passenger Plus”), you'll need tubing with a 10.1-foot ID.

Once you've got your tubes up on the pylons (fitted with dampers to mitigate the effects of earthquakes), you'll install solar panels on top of them, running the length of the system. They'll provide more than enough energy to power it; batteries (or perhaps compressed-air storage) can be used to run in inclement weather, fog and the abject blackness of the Central Valley night.

The panels will power linear induction motors in the tubes. Imagine an electric motor, cut and unrolled. The stator's attached to the tube, while the rotor's affixed to the passenger pod. Magnetic forces will keep the pieces in perfect alignment To decrease drag, you'll simply suck out most of the air in the system, giving it an atmospheric pressure 1/6 that of Mars -- a place Musk really, really, really wants to go. 

With all that set, now you just need a 28-person pod capable of taking advantage of your brand-spankin'-new infrastructure. Musk's pod design features a front-mounted air compressor. Given the low-friction environment the pods have access to, the compressor isn't needed so much for forward propulsion as it is to suspend the vehicle inside the tube via air bearings. The air bearings will be mounted on skis designed to conform to the shape of the tunnel, keeping the pod centered.

So how fast will it go? Musk calculates that high subsonic speeds are the sweet spot, allowing for reasonable haste between San Francisco and Los Angeles without the need for an overly complex system designed for the unique stresses of supersonic forces. Between San Francisco and the Central Valley, Hyperloop will initially travel at 300 mph, accelerating to 555 mph once it reaches the more wide-open spaces of the East Bay. Once out in the San Joaquin, the pod reaches Vmax, hitting 760 mph. Up and over Tejon Pass, the pod slows again to 555 mph then decelerates to 300 for the 167-second descent into Los Angeles.

Musk also envisions spur lines that operate with less frequency than the SF-LA pods' every-30-seconds schedule. Pods from Sacramento would depart every 15 minutes for San Francisco. Fresnans could catch a pod to the City every 30 minutes or shunt themselves to Los Angeles every 15. In San Diego, there'd be an LA-bound pod every five minutes, and for the Angelenos with a jones for Vegas glitz, there'd be pods headed across the Nevada state line 12 times an hour.

In case of an emergency or system failure, the pods could deploy mechanical brakes, as well as electrically driven wheels. Interestingly, in the case of a medical emergency involving a passenger, Musk suggests that the pod would simply complete its journey; the 35-minute station-to-station transit, after all, is less time than it takes for an airport to rejigger its pattern for an emergency landing and have the plane taxi to the terminal.

So what about the ducats? Musk calculates that the whole system, including 40 capsules, would cost $6.1 billion. Which, to put it in perspective, is $310,400,000 less than what California is spending to rebuild the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. If the Passenger Plus model was embraced, Musk suggests a 10-billion-dollar bill could cover the cost.

And while tickets on California's proposed high-speed rail system will likely come in around 100 bucks each way, Musk suggests that a one-way fare on Hyperloop would cost just $20.

Of course, this is all theoretical at the moment and Musk admits there are flaws in the plan. So he's released it as an open-source project, noting he doesn't have the time or resources to put into such a brobdingnagian undertaking while devoting attention to his automobile and rocketship concerns.

He has, however, suggested that he'd be willing to construct test track, saying, “I am tempted to at least build a demo prototype,” perhaps at the SpaceX Central Texas test facility between Killeen and Waco.

The theories behind Hyperloop don't sound particularly outré and Musk does have a track record of taking big science and applying it to the real world. The Golden State's high-speed rail plans seem to get called a "boondoggle" every other week. Could this network of hundreds of miles really be as cheap as a 2.17-mile stretch of suspension bridge? Musk clearly believes in the capacity of California to do great things. California takes great pride in Elon Musk's accomplishments thus far. Can the two work together to create something new, brilliant and concrete?

There are a lot of ifs here, but we've also learned that one makes long-term bets against Elon Musk at one's own peril. The real question is, will Hyperloop have enough Musk in it to have a chance of actually getting off the ground?

-- Davey G. Johnson


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Aug 17, 2013 11:36PM
Chances are every country in the civilized world will have this before America, because government red tape and regulations will throw a monkey wrench into any progress. 
Aug 18, 2013 4:31AM

How many times have we seen "whack jobs like this" through history that were criticized, banned and called blasphemous only to find out they were ahead of their time. Geniuses in fact.


Since this country does not have these type of leaders and visionaries as we did in the past that are willing to publicly announce these upset technologies that buck the system, we should take a moment and think of the grand perspective of his idea,  A whole infrastructure for the price of one section of bridge?  An open source project like Android think about it and its potential. How many upcoming geniuses and companies can get a break and make it without having to go through the system only to have their ideas bought and hidden in someone else's war chest to prevent competition.


Think of the cost to Americans, same ride for 20 dollars as an existing system costing 100.00 my god someone is going to be pissed at that thought and the fact it was put in print.


I say its time we embrace these visionaries Its time we get our young men and women back into science and technology and get this country back on track and put people to work on these projects even with flaws we will get it right at the end. If not, the enormous growth of our science field will move us into the future as leaders.

Aug 18, 2013 4:13AM
Once again an example of American ingenuity that will languish until some other nation picks it up and actually makes it happen.  We really love to give our technology away so that others can make it and then sell it back to us.  LOL
I would be in favor of this project if only to reinvigorate our pride. It would probably cost a more than they think but we spent 700 billion on our military. I’m sure we could find the money to make this happen. 
Aug 17, 2013 10:53PM
Actually I'm fascinated by the plan.  Remarkably realistic.  Somehow I see Musk's "flaws" the way Kirk sees Spock's "guesses".
Aug 18, 2013 6:38AM
Europeans and, as another posted pointed out, Americans, have been proposing and doing small tests on these types of systems for over 100 years.  We have been milking WWII technology for over 60 years and need bold experimentation to take these concepts to large scale trials.  Innovation is not just slightly improving what we already have, it is making drastic changes.  Historically, failed canals were built, planes crashed, rockets exploded regularly, tunnels ran out of money for completion, etc.  Countries and companies have become so risk averse that only those with nothing to lose, i.e., usually in the developing world after some natural resource made them instantly rich, are willing to make these visionary investments.  For the cost of our adventures in the Middle East and overly generous government pensions, we could already be 50 years into the future with our infrastructure...and economy.
Aug 18, 2013 12:36PM
This guy is an undisputed genius.  Not sure I'd ride it for the first couple years though...
Aug 18, 2013 7:45AM
The concept is not new. Have seen it in science fiction movies. It is quite workable. Simple to construct. Simple to operate. Perhaps they could start with a short distance version first to see how it works and accepted. 
Aug 18, 2013 11:37AM
If we can build a super-collider this should be ralatively streight forward.  Lets build a protype.  I never trusted a high speed train on tracks.  It is an acident waiting to happen.
Aug 18, 2013 4:33PM
I'm all in favor of this, provided we keep government the hell out of the project.  Simply put, if this is set up as a for-profit endeavor, then I have no doubt it could be run successfully and if it can't then that's that, we know it's impractical.  But get government involved and this will be a boondoggle of the highest order, plagued with cost overruns that may never see the light of day all while bilking taxpayers in a state that's already broke.  If this is truly a good idea, then let the free market make it happen.
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