Pop! goes the Hyperloop

Elon Musk celebrating his Hyperloop (in the future)…Credit: Elon Musk

If you’re old enough, you might remember a messaging system used in commercial buildings that had pipes or tubes running all over the place. You put paper items in a capsule, popped the capsule in a tube-port and SCHWUPP!, air suction whisked the dingus off to some destination. Banks still use this system to deal with customer transactions in a drive-thru. I bring this up because from appearances, Elon Musk wants to implement high speed transportation with a similar system. He calls it the Hyperloop. You may have seen the hype part of it.

Elon Musk is by all accounts a man of vision, at least where technology is concerned. His name comes up in conversations about the privatization of space (he’s CEO of SpaceX, one of the main competitors). He shows up in controversial pieces in the NY Times (among others) concerning his car company, Tesla Motors. He also chairs a major residential solar panel operation called Solar City. I won’t go into all of his involvements, except to say they establish him with a certain amount of cred when it comes to putting his money where his mouth is located; and it seems his mouth is mostly located in the future.

The Hyperloop continues his tradition of dealing with transport. In this case, Musk proposes a “new kind of railway system” to whisk people city to city approaching the speed of sound (specifically, 700 miles per hour/1150 kilometers per hour). The system looks something like the tube messaging I described above, only the ‘capsule’ is a passenger container, or pod, that rides on an air barrier it generates (similar to those table-top air hockey games). Industry uses the principle, called air bearings, to move heavy objects within manufacturing plants – this is not radical technology.

The system is to be elevated, meaning the tube construction will be the most expensive and vulnerable element. The energy for the transport comes primarily from solar panels incorporated into the tube, although there will also be supplemental energy from the electrical grid. Musk is releasing the technical details as open source documents, which means implementation will be “free and open.” Of course, not exactly free – Musk puts the price tag around $6 billion for a tube from San Francisco to Los Angeles. This sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but it’s actually less than early estimates for a high-speed rail between the two cities.

Hyperloop is certainly getting its fifteen minutes of public attention. It should. It’s not a crazy idea. You’ll see lots of technical analysis, most of which will say, “It could work, but….” The “but” usually involves money, time and politics. (Musk himself is not immune to political entanglements.) There is always the debate concerning the value of showcase technology (“Look what we can do!”) versus curmudgeonly pragmatism (“And who benefits from this?”). No doubt, this is both a demonstration of elite technological prowess and a transportation system for the elite.

Is Las Vegas taking odds on the Hyperloop project becoming real? (Heh.) Musk needs to line up some heavy hitters – either private industry or government. I don’t see either involved with the announcement. That makes this a nice incident of stimulating the public imagination – futurism still provokes a sense of optimism; but skeptics probably rule.

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