World, meet Hyperloop: Elon Musk details his sci-fi transportation system


Hints about tech billionaire Elon Musk’s transportation system of the future, Hyperloop, created quite the media frenzy in the run-up to its big reveal.

As teased by Musk himself, concept drawings, and a patent filing which got picked up shortly before Hyperloop’s unveiling, the system could allow “high-speed transportation of passengers and goods in tubes.”

So, how exactly would Hyperloop take people from San Francisco to LA in a mere 30 minutes? As some guessed by poring over concept drawings released earlier this year, Hyperloop will host aluminium pods traveling inside tubes that resemble a shotgun layout at speeds of up to 1300 kilometres per hour, mounted on columns 45 to 90 meters apart. Musk estimates that the solar-powered, elevated transit system would cost around US$6-billion for a passenger-only model, or US$10-billion model that’s large enough to transport cars. Intriguingly, the US$6-billion figure is less than Musk’s Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity have spent combined. The project would likely take four years to build.

What about friction problems that come along with maintaining an average of 1130 kilometres per hour? Musk told Businessweek that friction can be reduced by keeping the interior of Hyperloop at low pressures, which is less risky than a full vacuum. This approach is novel says, Musk. Previous theories have gravitated towards extremes.

Before the reveal, Musk teased that the Hyperloop was a mix between a Concord, air hockey table and a railgun. That last bit is interesting. Like a railgun, which is an electrical gun that accelerates a conductive projectile along a pair of metal rails, Hyperloop will use a linear accelerator that accelerates a pod through an electromagnetic pulse. The process is reversed to slow the pod down. The rails or “skis” as Musk calls them will be constructed of inconel, a SpaceX alloy that can withstand high pressure and heat.

Air gets pumped through little holes in the skis to make an air cushion, Musk says. The front of the pod would have a pair of air jet inlets—sort of like the Concorde. An electric turbo compressor would compress the air from the nose and route it to the skis and to the cabin. Magnets on the skis, plus an electromagnetic pulse, would give the pod its initial thrust; reboosting motors along the route would keep the pod moving. And: no sonic boom. With warm air inside the tubes and high tailwinds, the pods could travel at high speeds without crossing the sound barrier. “The pod can go just below the speed of sound relative to the air,” Musk told Businessweek.

How would it feel? Musk said in a conference call that since the “g-forces would always point down” passengers wouldn’t really feel any turning. “It would feel a lot like being in an airplane.” You wouldn’t notice the speed at all, said Musk.

During the call Musk, hinted that he could potentially start working on a prototype and hand over the project to someone else. Musk, who is focusing all his attention on Tesla and SpaceX, is not likely to oversee the entirety of the project. Instead, Hyperloop Alpha’s designs has been published and open-sourced. “I bet people [will] come up with things that make [the design] better,” said Musk. Musk revealed that he’s had little over a dozen people working part-time on Hyperloop Alpha for over a year, and underlined that it was not a top priority.

Plans for the Hyperloop likely emerged from Musk’s travels on Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and the Valley which hosts Tesla and SpaceX offices. Musk told Businessweek that Hyperloop was designed to link cities less than 1 000 miles apart that have high amounts of traffic between them.

During the call it became evident that Musk was excited about putting the idea out into the wild instead of providing a definitive answer. He added that he is not out to make “a ton of money” from the project.

Musk conceded that precautionary measures would have to be built into Hyperloop to guard against earthquakes in the California region.

Having been a vocal opponent of California’s proposed US$70-billion high-speed train, Musk concluded the call by advising against pursuing a rail solution which would be too costly and take too long to complete.

Image: Businessweek



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