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."
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: email@example.com Twitter: @DavidBakerSF
(c)2013 the San Francisco Chronicle
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