It's either the future of high-speed travel or Elon Musk's craziest
Musk, the billionaire serial entrepreneur behind Tesla Motors and SpaceX, on Monday revealed plans for a transportation system that could whisk passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 35 minutes through a set of tubes.
Passengers would ride in small capsules traveling as fast as 760 miles per hour while floating on a thin cushion of air inside the tubes. Rather than carrying engines, the capsules would surf electromagnetic pulses through the pipes, which would rest on 20-foot-tall pylons largely along the median of Interstate 5.
And the whole Hyperloop, Musk says, would cost $6 billion, or less than one-tenth as much as California's long-awaited high-speed-rail network.
Coming from anyone else, the concept would attract little notice. Researchers have proposed similar systems for more than 40 years, only to see their ideas fade into the background of science fiction films.
But Musk, 42, has sent rockets to the International Space Station and made electric cars sexy. His Model S sedan, only a year old, outsells comparable cars from auto-industry titans like Audi and Mercedes. He has developed a reputation for executing on crazy ideas.
"He's proven that he can do things that were seemingly impossible, and by golly, we need him to do this one," said Rod Diridon, head of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University. "We've got to have transportation modes that operate off of freeways and without petroleum, to avoid cooking the planet and avoid terminal gridlock. If he thinks he can do it, more power to him."
That said, the Hyperloop faces major obstacles, even if the technology pans out.
Although construction on the high-speed-rail system has not yet begun, development is well under way. Californians in 2008 approved almost $10 billion in bonds for the project and might have little appetite for ditching it in favor of an untested alternative. And large-scale construction efforts tend to meet political resistance in California.
"We have difficulty building solar collectors in the desert, for heaven's sake," said Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. "So any major infrastructure project is going to be difficult."
A year of mystery
For more than a year, Musk had been mentioning the Hyperloop in public without ever really saying what it was, dropping hints that his fans obsessively dissected online. When Musk finally published a 57-page description of the idea on Tesla's blog Monday, commentary raced across the Internet as fast as Twitter could carry it.
Musk developed the Hyperloop concept in part because he was so disappointed with California's high-speed-rail project, currently projected to cost $68 billion. A better, less-expensive system is possible and could be built in roughly the same amount of time, he said Monday.
"I don't think we should do the high-speed-rail thing," Musk said. "It's basically going to be California's Amtrak. And this for a state that was facing bankruptcy not that long ago."
The Hyperloop, in contrast, would carry people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about one-fifth the time, with a ticket price of just $20, according to Musk.
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