Inventor-entrepreneur-mad-scientist, Elon Musk just released an alpha design of his vision for the future of high-speed public transport. This is our first look at the Hyperloop. After teasing the concept for months, we're finally going to be able to figure out if this is a fantasy — or the beginning of our new reality.
The entire PDF of the design is embedded below. It's a crap-tonne of information, so here's what you need to know, summarised as succinctly as possible.
Until now, everything we've been able to figure out about the Hyperloop has been based on a few basic claims: That it could get you from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about 30 minutes; that it would cost 1/10th the estimated £45 billion price tag of the proposed high-speed rail line connecting the two coastal cities; and that it's "a cross between a rail gun, the concord, and an air hockey table."
All of that holds true in Musk's concept; he's just providing a lot more information and background. By "true" we mean Musk claims this can be done. We've got no idea whether it would actually work in practice.
The new system calls for aluminium pods to be shot through elevated steel tubes. The pods would fly at a top speed of 760mph. In one of the proposed designs, the pods hold 28 people, but there is an alternative design which would allow for entire cars to be loaded in.
The pods travel through two low-pressure steel tubes — one in each direction — welded together and stacked on top of each other. The tubes will be elevated, and can rest on simple pylons, unlike railroads — which are outrageously heavy — which need much more complicated foundations. The tubes will be covered in solar panels, which will generate most of the power needed for the Hyperloop.
Interestingly, Musk thinks the best idea to follow the existing rights of way path along Interstate 5 rather than carving out an entirely new "as the crow flies" path. According to Musk's studies, the primary advantage of this approach is that it's relatively easy to acquire or clear the land until right when you get to Los Angeles. It's also a relatively straight line, important for maintaining those speeds.
So far, everything falls within the speculation in advance of the announcement. But here's where things start to get crazy. As Musk has stated before, he doesn't think that the answer is send the pods through the tunnel in a vacuum. Unfortunately, Musk also think that it's far too inefficient to use a fan to generate huge columns of air, as was previously proposed by Musk's "best guess" designer John Gardi.
So how does Musk think he's going to get through all the air impeding its progress? The plan calls for each of the pods to come to battery-powered air compressor on the front. Which actively transfers high pressure air from the front to the rear of the vessel, where it is stored in a compressed air reservoir.
This brings us to another important difference between the plan and what people have proposed in the past by the likes of Rand Corporation and ET3. Hyperloop won't use magnetic levitation to keep the capsules off the ground, as had been widely assumed. Instead, it floats on air bearings, which work much like an air hockey table to keep the pods moving (almost) friction-free. This technology, according to Musk, has been demonstrated at speeds of up to Mach 1.1.
According to Musk, the onboard battery in each pod should be more than enough to power the pods — if it wasn't for that pesky need for acceleration. To solve this problem, Musk proposes using linear motors — similar to the motors used in the Tesla Model S. These are basically motors that have had their rotors "unrolled" such that they produce linear motion rather than torque.
Musk thinks the system can be built for £4-6.5 billion. That's considerably less that the £45 billion high-speed rail proposal currently being floated in California. Most of that cost would be the construction of a track and acquisition of land. He thinks that using solar panels and some energy recapture, the system can be essentially self-powering.
According to Musk, the new public transport system is ideal for high traffic corridors between cities about 900 miles apart. After that point, supersonic air travel becomes much more practical. Because of safety and comfort considerations, the vacuum-sealed designs calling for transport at thousands of miles per hour are impractical to the point of impossibility, according to Musk.
It's important to remember that what we're looking at today is very much a preliminary design that Musk hopes to get input on. There are a lot of problems that need to be overcome before flying down the west coast of the US in pods, and then hopefully expanding the idea to other places in the world.
Amongst the biggest problems? The land rights. Even if the engineering and economics are sound, you've got some real politicking to take care of there.
And that's a a BIG if. As Musk correctly pointed out during the Hyperloop call last night, when someone actually gets around to building a prototype, all sorts of problems will surely present themselves.
He has said that he has no plans to actually build the Hyperloop himself because he has enough on his plate with Tesla and SpaceX, which ultimately will mean someone else will need to step up to the plate. But Musk did say while he's not going to do it immediately, he's "tempted to at least make a demonstration prototype." He says that if he focused on it as a main priority, it would take him one or two years, but that given, you know, those other company's he has it'll probably take him three or four years.
Really Elon? "Yes, I think I will do that," he said.