The Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s proposal for a high-speed transport featuring capsules, tubes and a 1910s idea of what the 1970s would look like, has been all the rage recently. At this point most everyone has heard about this: disappointed with the California High Speed Rail (CHSR) project set to go from San Francisco to L.A. he found to be expensive and generally not worthwhile Elon Musk proposed a revamp of Robert “Father-of-Modern-Rocketry” Goddard’s vacuum trains last year, but wasn’t taken that seriously until he published a 58-page proposal last week.
While Goddard envisioned trains hovering over magnets within vacuum tubes speeding at around 1,600 kph thanks to the lack of air resistance,
Richard Branson’s cooler brother Mr. Musk proposes a partial vacuum of sorts in a large tube within which pods seating 28 will be able to travel at over 1,200kph. Since a complete vacuum is hard to achieve he wants to eliminate enough air to set the tube pressure at one sixth of what it is on Mars reducing “the drag force of the air by 1,000 times relative to sea level” allowing the capsules to move as if they were flying at 150,000 feet. [A.n.: interestingly enough “Drag Force” is a great name for either a Bravo or a Cartoon Network show.] To maintain these conditions the pods would absorb air at the front and channel it towards the back as well as towards the bottom so that it can function as a cushion between it and the tube. It gets better. As The Economist explains:
“Each pod would be launched by a linear-induction motor (such motors are also being tested for use as catapults on aircraft carriers), and booster motors every 110km would keep its speed up. On reaching its destination, the pod would pass through a motor that worked in reverse, converting its kinetic energy back into electricity for storage in batteries or use in motors up the line. And, this being California, the whole thing would naturally be powered by solar panels mounted on the roof of the tube.”
The tubes themselves would run parallel, southward- and northward bound, looping at the ends with a couple of branches sprouting in the middle. The whole shindig will rest on 20 feet tall pylons set at 100 feet intervals and will run along interstate 5, which Mr. Musk notes will save everyone a lot of land-rights related heartache and cash. What about the response? Well, initially it was warm-ish but now everyone and their grandmother say that he is wildly overestimating the feasibility of the project. Honestly, people have found so many problems with this that I’m just going to note some fun ones in bullet-point form:
- It would cost much more than predicted.
- That air hockey stuff going on at the bottom of the pod is going to create some serious heat.
- No, seriously. It’s going to cost way more than predicted. As much as the CHSR.
- I can’t believe I didn’t see anyone talking about the issues land-dwellers will have with the noise the speed these things go at will create. In his Alpha Hyperloop whitepaper Mr. Musk says that the sonic boom “would be no louder than current airliners, so that isn’t a showstopper”. If you have these departing every minute or so from each terminal as he suggests one could imagine it would be quite a big deal.
- How fun is it to go at 1,200kph on land prone to earthquakes?
Everyone can agree that the Hyperloop is a great idea and exciting to think about, but most will say it is nowhere near being implementable. This appears to have led
One of My Top 5 Favorite South African Citizens, Coming In Fourth Right After Dave Matthews Elon Musk to change his initial refusal to work on the Hyperloop (he was just putting the idea out there) to a tentative “I think it might help if I built a demonstration article”. That is great. The chances of this bumping CHSR out of the picture would be slim anyway. The foreseeable outcome is that in a month people will find something else to talk about and California’s government will wheeze a sigh of relief and quietly drudge on with their initial plan. But it looks likely something new will come out of this on the long run. A fast and cheap alternative to cars and planes which any European worth his or her whine will tell you is something that this country really needs. No, trains don’t count as transport here. They are rare and only for decorative purposes. In any case, wouldn’t it be nice if the following were true?
I for one look forward to one day have a panic attack in a tiny tube hurdling just below the speed of light towards L.A. in the company of 27 hippies. -Margot