OK. You’ve got billions in the bank, a head for phenomenally-successful disruptive engineering, a great business record and a clean sheet of paper. How would you revolutionise transportation? Elon Musk is that man and, tonight, he tweeted that all will be revealed by 12th August. His idea? The Hyperloop.
Will publish Hyperloop alpha design by Aug 12. Critical feedback for improvements would be much appreciated.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 15, 2013
WTF is a Hyperloop?
That’s kind of the point of Musk’s tweet. It’s top secret. But also kind of a big deal… Elon is not very good at keeping secrets but he always manages to shut up just in time to not reveal everything. He let slip about Hyperloop at the D11 conference, calling it “a cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table”. “If they had a threeway and had a baby,” he said, before understandably trailing off…
Musk says Hyperloop would reduce travel time from San Francisco to LA down to 30 minutes. The general consensus has been that high-speed mass transit like this would involve tubes containing small pressurised “pods”, the tubes would have all the air sucked out of them so they’re almost like a vacuum, and then the pods would be fired through them, with little air resistance, at high speed. Probably powered by magnets, like the maglev (magnetic levitation) trains in Europe and Japan.
But Musk suggests that this hypothesis is only 50% right.
Tonight he let slip about some more information as some people proposed ideas of what the Hyperloop could involve. One tweeter, John Gardi, proposed the following penumatic-column idea:
— Tinker (@John_Gardi) July 15, 2013
@John_Gardi your guess is the closest I’ve seen anyone guess so far. Pod diameter probably around 2m
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 15, 2013
Musk’s response that it is “the closest I’ve seen anyone guess so far” is intriguing. John Gardi’s approach makes a lot of sense for several key reasons:
- Using circulating columns of air rather than a vacuum reduces power requirements
- Unlike most underground metro trains that push air through the system, these pods will be carried by the air, turning a resistant force into a beneficial one
- Terrorism is a high concern. If, God forbid, a bomb got onto a Hyperloop and went off, if the tubes were in a vacuum state, the explosion would be even more devastating. By filling them with air you don’t have a dramatic pressure differential to amplify the effects of any incendiary device
- Earthquakes are a concern too (especially as it looks like California will benefit from this system first!). Pneumatics could provide a level of cushioning during frequent earthquakes and could provide a safer failure mode than magnetic levitation (although there are mitigations for this, like adding backup wheels or backup generators)
- In an emergency, I’d rather be in a tube with air in it than in a vacuum!
My main question is around the propulsion. Is it only-pneumatically driven? Or is it magnetic? Or is it mostly pneumatic with magnetic augmentation? Or vice versa?
The 12th August should be a good day for tech and engineering nerds the world over.
Who is this Elon maniac?
You may have heard of some of Elon’s previous businesses. Paypal? Remember that little pokey corner of the interwebs? That was one of his. He owned 11.7% of the company (its biggest shareholder) when eBay bought it for $1.5bn in 2002.
Since then, his spaceship company (as you do) has won a $1.6bn contract with NASA to take cargo to the International Space Station. His Falcon 1 became the first private, liquid-fuelled vehicle to deploy a satellite into orbit and in 2012 his Dragon vehicle became the first commercial vehicle to dock with the ISS.
Not happy with only revolutionising person-to-person payments and space transport (I mean, who would be? Slacker…) Elon turned his attention to electric vehicles and started the Tesla motor company.
After the engineering success of the Roadster (based on the British Lotus Elise) and the commercial success of the Model S family saloon (sedan) Tesla posted its first profit in 2013. And, based on market cap, became a larger company than Italy’s Fiat (owner of Ferrari)!
Elon Musk has the cash, the know-how and the balls to make Hyperloop not only a reality, but a success. I can’t wait to see this develop. Transoceanic Hyperloops would change the way humans live. They would shrink the world to such a degree that we’d really need to sort out things like timezones once and for all…