Elon Musk unveils ‘Hyperloop’ plans

August 12, 2013

SpaceX and Tesla chief executive Elon Musk on Monday released his concept for a transportation system that could deliver passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes — if it is ever built.

The billionaire entrepreneur estimated that the “Hyperloop” — a solar-powered, earthquake-resistant, pod-based transportation system — would cost $6 billion and take 10 years to build, assuming it can be built at all. The train would run on a “round induction motor” similar to the one used in Tesla Motors’ Model S.

(CROWD SOURCED: How would you edit Elon Musk’s “Hyperloop” paper?)

“It should just feel really super smooth and quiet, and obviously there’d never be any turbulence or anything,” Musk said during a conference call Monday after posting the 57-page plan to his Web site.

Musk, who had told Tesla investors he had no plans to build the system, said he would be open to building a prototype that he would hand off to someone else to build if no one else offered to do so.

Earlier this month, during a Google Hangout with Virgin Group founder and chairman Sir Richard Branson, Musk said the catalyst for the Hyperloop was the disappointment he felt after reviewing plans for a $68 billion high-speed rail system being built to run between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In the paper posted Monday, Musk wrote: “How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL – doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?”

Musk said he started thinking about the idea roughly18 months ago, and started involving others about nine months ago. The concept he laid out was compiled by a team of roughly a dozen SpaceX and Tesla employees working alongside Musk. But putting together the report was “very much a background task. It wasn’t anybody’s full-time job,” said the entrepreneur.

Musk said that even if he developed a prototype, he would not do so in the interest of making “a ton of money”, and that the plans would remain free for the public to use.Musk also tweeted shortly after releasing the plans Monday that they were not the final version and that another version with “several late arriving corrections” would arrive in a few hours.

“I would like to see something like this happen,” said Musk. “It would be cool to see a new form of transport happen.”

So, how do we do it? Do we even want to do it? The report outlines a number of challenges, including air pressure and an adequate power source. Offer up your edit on Elon Musk’s Hyperloop plan, and up and down vote other people’s edits. And if you don’t want the Hyperloop, let us know that too. Who knows, sometimes the best plan is the one that starts from scratch.

Hyperloop Alpha

Original Post: Tesla and SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk is announcing his plans for the “Hyperloop” Monday — a high-speed transportation system that, ideally, could take passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles for a fraction of the cost and faster than the $68 billion high-speed rail system scheduled to begin running in 2028. Musk has said the Hyperloop, as he envisions it, could get you from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about 30 minutes, traveling at about the speed of sound.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gives the opening keynote at the SXSW Interactive Festival on Saturday, March 9, 2013 in Austin, Texas.(AP Photo/Jack Plunkett)
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gives the opening keynote at the SXSW Interactive Festival on Saturday, March 9, 2013, in Austin, Tex.(Jack Plunkett/AP)

As exciting as all of that sounds, the key word here is “ideally.” Musk described the Hyperloop at the D11 conference in May, and the outline was less than scientific. “It’s a cross between a Concord and a rail gun and an air hockey table. If they did a threeway and had a baby somehow,” said Musk, you’d have a kicking, screaming Hyperloop.

Musk is calling the announcement Monday an “alpha design,” and requested “critical feedback” from the general public via Twitter back in July:

Also, he is publishing the plans as open source, and said on a conference call with Tesla investors Thursday that he has no plans to build the Hyperloop himself. That’s not surprising, considering he already runs two other companies — SpaceX and Tesla — where he and his teams are tackling challenges in the commercial space flight and electric car markets.

Musk has provided at least one additional tweet-hint as to the design specs, specifically the size of the pods that would transport passengers. A rudimentary design, drawn up by John Gardi, led Musk to tweet the additional nugget: 

Gardi, a “tinkerer and jack-of-all-trades,” went into detail regarding his “small part in the Hyperloop saga” in a piece on Motherboard, writing that he put together his design “out of frustration with all the wild leaps that the story had been taking.” After Musk’s Twitter mention, Gardi wrote that he was “buried neck-deep” in feedback, but had accomplished his goal: “critical discussion.” Here’s a closer look at Gardi’s design via Twitter:

Earlier this month, Musk hung out with fellow space-travel enthusiast and Virgin Group founder and chairman Richard Branson. During the question-and-answer session, Musk opened the window a bit wider on his thought process:

“I originally started thinking about it when I read about California’s high-speed rail project, which was somewhat disappointing because it’s not a very high-speed rail,” said Musk of the plans for the nation’s first high-speed rail system, which would include stops in San Diego and Sacramento. (See the video above at the 22-minute mark).

Musk went on to cite the project’s average speed and, as he saw it, less-than-direct proposed route. “So, it’s actually worse than, say, taking the plane.”

“Why would one want to do a big expensive project like that, which is slower than alternatives and will likely be more expensive than alternatives,” Musk asked rhetorically. “You want the future to be better than the past — or at least I do, quite a bit.”

Taking into account the distance between the two cities (less than 1,000 miles) and factoring in the time it would take to ascend and descend in a plane as well as taking into account a way to eliminate potential weather delays, Musk settled on the Hyperloop.

He went on to say he envisioned the Hyperloop as a system that would transport people at “effectively faster than the speed of sound,” and that it would involve a tube with a partial vacuum.

The Hyperloop isn’t an entirely new idea. Business Insider reported in May that the Rand Corp. published a paper in 1972 by physicist Robert M. Salter proposing a high-speed transportation system called the Very High Speed Transit System (VHST). (Also interesting is a paper Salter wrote in 1978 on a trans-planetary subway system called “Planetran” that could cross the U.S. in roughly an hour.)

Salter writes that the VHST could potentially take passengers from Los Angeles to New York in 21 minutes. The impediment wasn’t science, according to Salter, but politics. And, if there’s one way in which innovation has taken place in politics, it’s in finding new ways to perpetuate gridlock. Although, to be fair, Musk has not said he is proposing a system that would cross state lines.

The announcement is scheduled for 2 p.m. Pacific time (5 p.m. Eastern) via a conference call, and the design specs will be posted on both the Space X and Tesla Web sites shortly beforehand, according to a SpaceX spokesperson.

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Emi Kolawole | August 12, 2013