Tesla CEO Elon Musk brought the idea of the “Hyperloop” to the public in 2013 in this white paper. He came up with the idea after the passing of a proposition that would construct a high-speed rail system for California which has already become one of (if not the) most expensive public works projects in history. He wanted a easier and more practical solution to human transport.
“When the California ‘high speed’ rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too. 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?” he asked in his white paper.
Musk’s solution was the Hyperloop—a tube allowing people to quickly get around at speeds just under the speed of sound. Musk acknowledged that friction would get in the way of his idea—especially when turns are made—but came to the conclusion that the Hyperloop could travel alongside Interstate 5 (the main route to Los Angeles from San Francisco) and could be self-powering using solar panels.
One of his main problems, overcoming the Kantrowitz limit (the top speed law for a given tube to pod area ratio), “could be resolved by mounting an electric compressor fan on the nose of the pod that actively transfers high pressure air from the front to the rear of the vessel. This is like having a pump in the head of the syringe actively relieving pressure,” Musk said.
He also said it was economically viable compared to the California high-speed rail project, which is already estimated to cost $68 billion. Musk said that the Hyperloop would cost, at the most, $7.5 billion. However, some financial analysts and academics are estimating that it could cost $100 billion just to build the Hyperloop from San Francisco to Los Angeles, mostly because the government would have to buy land to build the Hyperloop on.
Although the timetable for the Hyperloop is still unknown, students at the University of Illinois managed to get a miniature prototype for the Hyperloop working. While the full-size version of the Hyperloop has a theoretical top speed of 760 miles per hour, this mini-Hyperloop managed to clock in at only 161 mph—faster than an automobile, but still slower than high-speed rail. In addition, the mini-Hyperloop uses roller bearings and travels in an oval rather than in a straight line—possibly making the mini-Hyperloop concept more practical for metropolitan mass transit as opposed to long distance transportation.
Time constraints forced several modifications to Musk’s original design, but the mini-Hyperloop is just the beginning. “For the sake of our prototype, it wasn’t feasible to have that complex of a system implanted in one semester. We’re thinking future classes will take our work and move forward with it,” said Andrew Horton, one of the leaders of the project.
SpaceX announced a competition where teams of people will design a pod used for the Hyperloop. This competition will take place in June 2016 on a Hyperloop test track near SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Musk took it a step further and allowed his white paper, plans and design to be open sourced, allowing any company or engineer to work on the design, which means the timetable for the Hyperloop could be pushed significantly forward. “We are excited that a handful of private companies have chosen to pursue this effort,” SpaceX said. “While we are not developing a commercial Hyperloop ourselves, we are interested in helping to accelerate development of a functional Hyperloop prototype.”
University students will design passenger pods that will be presented to SpaceX officials at Texas A&M University by next January, and the best designs will be built and tested on the test track. While the Hyperloop still has some technical and financial limitations to overcome, it is well on its way to become the “fifth mode of transportation” as Musk envisioned.