News Column

Musk Reveals Details on Hyperloop Tube

August 13, 2013

David R. Baker

Elon Musk
Elon Musk (file photo)

It's either the future of high-speed travel or Elon Musk's craziest idea yet.

Or both.

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. In some ways, it would run more like a subway system than a commuter train, with capsules leaving every two minutes. But it would be smoother than any subway, riding on air rather than rails.

"It would actually feel a lot like being in an airplane," Musk said. "Once you were traveling at speed, you wouldn't really notice the speed at all."

Facing reality

Skeptics, including the head of California's High Speed Rail Authority, said Musk's cost estimates might be a bit optimistic. Then there are difficulties of rallying public support for the project and overcoming resistance from property owners. "While we have a lot of respect for his inventiveness, I think we could tell him a few things about the realities of building in California," said Dan Richard, the rail authority's chairman.

The tubes alone, Richard said, would probably cost $15 billion to $20 billion. He also noted that many promising technologies have failed to make the transition from grand vision to finished product.

"I think it's great, but I don't see it as something that's going to compete with high-speed rail anytime soon," Richard said. "It's sort of like me saying, 'Don't buy a Tesla, because the Jetsons' flying car is right around the corner.' "

Running along I-5

As envisioned by Musk, the Hyperloop would consist of two parallel steel tubes resting on pylons spaced 100 feet apart.

For most of the 350-mile route, they would stand above the median strip of I-5, switching to Interstate 580 in the East Bay. Tunnels would carry the tubes beneath the Altamont Pass and the Grapevine, the twisting mountain pass that connects Southern California to the San Joaquin Valley. Inside the tubes, a linear electric motor would generate an electromagnetic field to accelerate the capsules, which could carry up to 28 people. (An alternate version of the Hyperloop would feature capsules capable of hauling cars as well as people, although that would require larger pipes.)

To reduce friction, pumps would keep the air pressure within the pipes low. In addition, a scoop and fan on the front of the capsule would take in air and force some of it through small holes on skis mounted beneath the vehicle. Like a puck flying across an air-hockey table, the capsule would float on a thin layer of air.

It's not clear who would build the Hyperloop, if anyone ever does.

Seeding the idea

Musk said last week that he wants to "open-source" the idea -- place it in the public realm and let anyone who's interested look for flaws or ways to improve it. He initially balked at the idea of building it himself, telling Wall Street analysts last week that he was too "strung out" from running Tesla and SpaceX to take on a project of this magnitude.

But on Monday, he said he might build a demonstration version of the Hyperloop, probably forming yet another company in the process.

"This is a low priority compared to the core missions of SpaceX and Tesla, but I think it might help if I created a prototype and helped get things going that way," he said. "If somebody else goes and does a demo, that would be really awesome. And I hope somebody does. ... It would be cool to see a new form of transportation happen."

David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: dbaker@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @DavidBakerSF

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