Not since Tomorrowland’s PeopleMover has a vision for the future of urban mass transportation garnered as much attention as the high-speed Hyperloop system has.
The man behind the ballyhooed project is Tesla Motors boss Elon Musk, who first mentioned the Hyperloop program in an August 2013 blog post titled “Hyperloop Alpha” that appeared on Tesla’s website. Hyperloop would use a series of powerful pneumatic tubes to move passenger- or cargo-filled capsules from place to place at speeds up to 800 mph. (Think of it as the human transit equivalent to the clear-plastic delivery tubes used at banks.) The first models of Hyperloop show capsule interiors that resemble train cabins, with traditional seats and storage compartments; the estimated cost of a Hyperloop ride would be as low as $20. (If that figure is at all like Musk’s cost estimates for purchasing and running a Tesla, factor in a heap of government incentives and a generous misunderstanding of economics.
Hyperloop’s preliminary design bridges the gap between two of California’s major urban centers, Los Angeles and San Francisco. “The Los Angeles region has a severe need for public transit for many reasons,” says urban planning expert Anne Friedrich, and any method to help efficiently move a population of more than 10 million would be welcome. Musk believes humans are capable of trusting Hyperloop as a form of public transportation, and MIT has called Hyperloop’s design “ambitious to the point of being outlandish” but a functionally sound concept.
Musk provides only the thought starter, though, allowing individuals to run free in an open-source scheme, hoping to push progress without putting up all of the cash for infrastructure and development. SpaceX, which technically owns the Hyperloop program, has already invited a cadre of 29 college teams to a competition in Los Angeles to present their working concepts on a company track. Two of the leading early adopters are Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) and Hyperloop One. HTT’s Hyperloop system would resemble a monorail that runs alongside major thoroughfares and sits high above the ground on a dedicated track; the company is planning its first track halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Hyperloop One, on the other hand, already conducted a test run in Nevada in May, during which its Hyperloop demo-mobile accelerated to 116 mph in just more than a second before slowing to a stop. Rob Lloyd, Hyperloop One’s CEO, says, “Given our current engineering and development schedules, right now we see the opportunity to move cargo starting in 2020 and people in 2021.” By Lloyd’s math, Hyperloop One “can deliver a system for 50 percent to 60 perecent of the capital cost of high-speed rail, and a bit better than that in terms of ongoing operating expense.” Better still, it would be much, much faster than Tomorrowland’s solution for urban mass transportation.