Not too long ago, I told you that Elon Musk, the brain behind Tesla Motors, was coming up with an idea for vacuum tube based transit. Well, he released a 57-page PDF on the subject last Monday. Don’t worry, though, I’ve read it for you.
In that lengthy PDF, Musk states that his plans stem from his disappointment at the California “high-speed” rail. “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,” Musk writes “would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?”
Musk’s Hyperloop is supposed to be a fifth mode of transportation “after planes, trains, cars and boats” that is safer, faster, cheaper, self-powering, non-disruptive, and more convenient. While he commends Robert Goddard, ET3, and the Rand Corporation for their efforts, Musk claims that “there is not even a short distance demonstration system operating in test pilot mode anywhere in the world” and that this is because each of the proposed systems contains one or more fatal flaws.
The Hyperloop is to run a round-trip of 900 miles (1500km) or less. “Short of figuring out real teleportation, which would of course be awesome (someone please do this),” Musk says that the only option for super fast travel is to build a tube over or under the ground. These tubes would have a “special environment,” which is problematic.
The pneumatic tubes used for banking causes problems with drag, and a vacuum tube is unsustainable, because all you’d need to crash the system is a tiny leak somewhere along the 900 miles of tubing. So Musk’s compromise is a low-pressure system where the “pods” create their own air cushion. Kind of like an air hockey table, but one that propels a capsule down 900 miles at sub-sonic (but still incredibly high) speeds.
The air cushion would require fans mounted on the front of the pods, which would require their own battery. The pods themselves would have an external linear engine, much like the one in the Tesla S. The costs are projected to be several million at most for the pods and linear motors, and several billion for the tube. However, the total cost is estimated to be under $6 billion USD. “Even several billion is a low number when compared with several tens of billion proposed for the track of the California rail project” Musk justified. Forbes has a rundown on the California project, but the estimated cost was $45 billion, of which California has raised $10 billion.
The Hyperloop would travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco, with the trip taking approximately half an hour. With those speeds, capsules could depart as often as every 30 seconds from each terminal. Using solar panels mounted along the length of the tube, and batteries for the motors and fans, the Hyperloop will be inexpensive for passengers as well as self-sustaining.
The plans include options to extend the transportation system to other major cities in California, as well as design specs for the capsules (interior and exterior) and specs for a larger system that will allow transport of three full-size cars to travel in each capsule.
It is of note that the Hyperloop is actually greener than the fully electric Tesla Model S. And as such is much more eco-friendly than regular old passenger trains, like the California high-speed rail.
The pod designs look like something Asimov would envision if he ever played Halo. Musk uses the word “levitation” in relation to an actual thing that these pods will be capable of, and each seat comes equipped with a personal entertainment system like newer-model planes.
Musk himself may develop the prototype, but even that is uncertain at this point since Hyperloop is the Linux of public transit. If you have any useful feedback on the design, email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those of you allergic to numbers and charts, I’d suggest reading no further than the first five pages of Musk’s proposal. Once you hit the technical section, it’s all graphs and tables and math. However, it is the most entertaining technical writing I’ve ever read, which may not say much, but is still an accomplishment. If you want to take a gander, go check it out on the Tesla Motors blog.