May 29, 2013


I'm probably more excited about the promise of Hyperloop than any other innovation on the horizon. It's another Elon Musk idea and he talked about it today at AllThingsD.
Audience question: Can you talk about the Hyperloop? 
Musk: I can’t talk about that quite yet but it’ll be big news. There’s a Tesla announcement around June 20…at some point after that will be a good time to talk about it. For those that aren’t aware, the basic idea is will there be a better way to travel quickly from LA to San Francisco than high-speed rail. The high-speed rail that’s been proposed will be the slowest bullet train in the world and the most expensive, and it’s a little depressing. Even if I’m wrong about the economic assumptions behind the Hyperloop, it would be a really fun ride. It’s a cross between a Concorde and a rail gun and an air hockey table.
So what the hell is it? Good question. Is it a monorail? Well no one but Musk knows for sure. Wikipedia has some data.
Tantalizing no?  So what is it? I think the best estimate of what it is was given on Quora a while back.

To paraphrase that first answer:

  • At those speeds the largest energy cost is from wind resistance and yet it's not a vacuum tunnel. One way to avoid this is to have a looped tunnel with an internal air flow. But this isn't fully explained in the answer. Airflow approaching 600 mph is hard and costly. But if the transport vehicles were moving close enough together you'd get some drafting effect within the entire system.The diameter of the tunnel would be 2 meters. Much of the cost of a train system is the rail line and keeping the train on that rail line. Not an issue here.
  • The transport mode would be a single passenger unit powered by something similar to the Tesla electric motors in their cars and would drive a set of wheels that touch the inside of the tunnel.
  • The guy works out the math and with no headroom comes in at around $6 billion. So as an engineer I'd double that to $12 billion to be safe. Still far cheaper than than the $60 billion train system that is proposed.
So Musk says he's going to say something more about this after June. But I think given the lowish cost its enticing to think that maybe the US government could get behind this and actually save money. But if it came to reality the result, for me at least, is mind boggling. 
  • A ticket would cost $60-120, would be twice as fast as a plane and would involve no sharing of space with other passengers.
  • There would be no departure time. You'd just show up at the station and wait for an open vehicle.
  • Terrorist possibilities are quite small. You could blow up the tunnel and maybe kill a few people before the system was shut down. But there is no way to create some massively deadly event with the system. Therefore security would be light which would also increase the speed of getting to your destination.
  • And finally if a SF to LA system worked you could see this type of transportation being deployed in a hub system across the country. Instead of having a 2 hour layover in Denver, you get out, run to the next loop and off you go.
  • Oh and there's probably no need for a baggage handling system. You'd just load your own bags.

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