Elon Musk’s Hyperloop: 5 Things You Should Know

Elon Musk, he of Tesla and SpaceX fame, is looking to shake up the transportation industry with an idea called the Hyperloop. Here are the basics

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Elon Musk

A concept sketch for Elon Musk's proposed Hyperloop transportation system

Elon Musk, he of Tesla and SpaceX fame, is looking to shake up the transportation industry with an idea called the Hyperloop.

Businessweek has some details concerning how the Hyperloop would work, and Musk himself has released a 57-page PDF alongside an accompanying blog post, but here are the basics.

It Would Go From L.A. to San Francisco in About 35 Minutes, With No Need for Train- or Plane-like Schedules

Musk proposes the roughly 380-mile (612 km) trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco taking about 35 minutes in the Hyperloop, according to his PDF. Aluminum “pods” containing passengers and even cars would be shot through steel tubes at almost 800 miles per hour (1,290 km/h) in certain stretches. Musk’s blog post mentions that such a system would be “the right solution for the specific case of high-traffic city pairs that are less than about 1,500 km or 900 miles apart.”

According to Businessweek:

In Musk’s vision, the Hyperloop would transport people via aluminum pods enclosed inside of steel tubes. He describes the design as looking like a shotgun with the tubes running side by side for most of the journey and closing the loop at either end. These tubes would be mounted on columns 50 to 100 yards [46 to 91 m] apart, and the pods inside would travel up to 800 miles per hour. Some of this Musk has hinted at before; he now adds that pods could ferry cars as well as people. ‘You just drive on, and the pod departs,’ Musk told Bloomberg Businessweek in his first interview about the Hyperloop.

As mentioned in the above quote, if there’s an available pod, you’d be able to hop in or drive your car onto it. The concept seems like how a roller coaster works: line up, file into an open seat, buckle up and hold on.

passengers

Elon Musk

A cutaway of passengers in a Hyperloop capsule

Musk’s PDF states that capsules would each carry up to 28 passengers at a time, departing “on average every two minutes” or “up to every 30 seconds during peak-usage hours.” The alternative system that could carry cars would fit three “full-size automobiles” inside each capsule.

Musk told Businessweek. “You could have about 70 pods between Los Angeles and San Francisco that leave every 30 seconds. It’s like getting a ride on Space Mountain at Disneyland.”

It Would Work Sort of Like a Roller Coaster, With the Added Element of an Air Cushion

So how would the Hyperloop actually work? Musk goes into great detail about it in the 57-page PDF, if you’re looking for the most technical explanation. But According to Businessweek’s piece, the pods would be mounted atop thin skis and would move along inside the steel tubes while under low pressure, propelled forward by magnets and an initial electromagnetic pulse. The skis would have holes in them, through which air would be pumped, creating a levitation effect.

ski

Elon Musk

Schematic drawing of a proposed Hyperloop ski

A physics professor at UCLA told Businessweek that similar systems already exist for use with real-world roller coasters, but that Musk “has separated the air cushion and the linear induction drive, and that seems new.”

As for safety, Musk’s PDF says, “The system is immune to wind, ice, fog and rain. The propulsion system is integrated into the tube and can only accelerate the capsule to speeds that are safe in each section. With human-control error and unpredictable weather removed from the system, very few safety concerns remain.” About four pages of Musk’s 57-page PDF are devoted to possible safety concerns, including passenger emergencies, power outages, capsule depressurization, stranded capsules, tube integrity, earthquakes and more.

It Would Mostly Be Constructed in the Interstate 5 Median

At upwards of 800 miles an hour, the Hyperloop would theoretically have to be a straight shot between L.A. and San Francisco. How would you build it? Underground? Above ground? Through people’s backyards?

In his PDF, Musk says “the majority of the route will follow I-5 and the tube will be constructed in the median,” but concedes that it would have to follow a somewhat straighter path:

In order to avoid bend radii that would lead to uncomfortable passenger inertial accelerations and hence limit velocity, it is necessary to optimize the route. This can be achieved by deviating from the current highway system, earth removal, constructing pylons to achieve elevation change or tunneling.

It’s hard to turn at 800 miles per hour, in other words.

route

Elon Musk

Suggested Hyperloop route, along with future route and station possibilities

Musk Says It Could Be Built for Between $6 Billion and $10 Billion; Tickets Would Be Cheaper Than Airfare

California’s $70 billion proposal for a high-speed train system left Musk “disappointed,” as he mentions in his blog post, adding, “How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL — doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars — would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?”

According to Businessweek, “Musk figures the Hyperloop could be built for $6 billion with people-only pods, or $10 billion for the larger pods capable of holding people and cars. All together, his alternative would be four times as fast as California’s proposed train, at one-tenth the cost. Tickets, Musk says, would be ‘much cheaper’ than a plane ride.”

In the PDF, Musk writes, “Transporting 7.4 million people each way and amortizing the cost of $6 billion over 20 years gives a ticket price of $20 for a one-way trip for the passenger version of Hyperloop.”

Nobody’s Planning to Actually Build It

Just a minor detail here, but someone has to step up and build the Hyperloop, which means raising a bunch of money, getting California to okay a big double-barreled tube to be built along I-5 between San Francisco and L.A., and a whole list of other details. Musk may have pitched the Hyperloop concept today, but he has no intent to actually do anything with it right now: during a Tesla earnings call last week, Musk said, “I don’t have any plans to execute, because I must remain focused on SpaceX and Tesla.”

29 comments
tonyalvarado440
tonyalvarado440

The Hyperloop is an exciting idea for fast distance travel, but similar to current public transportation options like California's Silicon Valley light rail system or Caltrain commuter train system, it relies on the public to travel to and from a designated train stop. If one were to use our BiModal Glideway system you’d be able to travel from door to door without relying on changing trains, busses or leaving your car in a crowded commuter parking lot during the day where it could be vandalized. Visit our website for a short video description and more information about the BiModal Glideway and leave us your comments or questions about our system. We can also be found on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.


jetaccount
jetaccount

Super paper - just what I would expect from Mr Musk.

Surely, all this stuff about transport is a smokescreen to cover the development of what will be without doubt the WORLD'S MOST EXPENSIVE KETTLE!

Kettle lovers worldwide will be celebrating such a brilliant invention.  You start out in LA with a tank of water, and the net (thermodynamic) result is a kettle full of steam in LA (and vice versa).  Brilliant!

George286
George286

Didn't I see this in a 1920s edition of Popular Mechanics about the future?  But I am open-minded, just build a proof-of-concept run 20 miles long first.  Disney will probably finance it, from LAX to there  Otherwise use my idea of having two giants throw huge paper airplanes full of people between LA and SF.

jimmyjimmyjimmy111
jimmyjimmyjimmy111

I think we'll all be surprised at how quickly this comes to fruition. 

topstocktrader1
topstocktrader1

Thanks for your pessimism at the end, but you forgot to mention that Musk said he is willing to fund it and will eventually do it himself if no one does.  I'm sure he will find someone on planet earth to undertake this task.

lallen2064
lallen2064

If nothing else this out of box thinking may stimulate the minds of other engineers and designers.  It may not prove practical today but it may inspire what will be practical and useful down the road. 

KarenTadlockWeil
KarenTadlockWeil

I see this at the bank teller's drive in service all the time!  But on land?  I would hate to be in one of these when there's an earthquake!

urgelt
urgelt

It's an audacious, intriguing concept, but there are some unsolved engineering problems with it.

The largest problem seems to be heat dissipation.  Musk's PDF specifies a water and steam exchange system on-board each capsule to store heat energy generated by supersonic passage of the capsule through the tube, but there won't be much surface area for the heat exchange to work in those little capsules.  Further, his PDF doesn't address tube cooling.  Those tubes are also going to get hot - which exacerbates the problem of cooling the capsules.  I think there will have to be some heavy-duty modeling to show that heat can be managed in the system.

I didn't see any toilets in his conceptual designs, either!

The requirement for reusable, near-perfect air seals on the capsules and at station airlocks seems to suggest a higher price tag than he's thus far projected.  Seals like that, configured for this purpose, are not commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) items.

These aren't objections.  I'd love to see the concept developed to the next stage.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

All I can say about this thing is that for something that isn't even going to ever be built, a hell of a lot of publications are headlining it as if it's something important.

jrl.photog
jrl.photog

Why the f**k would anyone want to do this? One of the most beautiful drives in the world is along the coast highway. Did it in 1970 in a Porsche 356. Made love w/ a very pretty redhead hitchhiker, waves crashing, moon full, overlooking Big Sur.  That's a year before Mr. Musk was born. He seems to never have had the experience

 PayPal was a a good idea. Tesla has a nice homage. Space service, well, the Gov't wants to get out of the business. Why the heck would anyone, (except Mr. Musk) want to get from L.A. to San Fran in 35 minutes? 

littleredtop
littleredtop

This is a great idea but what happens when a passenger must use a bathroom?  The capsule is too small to allow freedom of movement let alone the installation of a bathroom - you must remain seated from origin to destination.  Also, as a side note, thermal expansion was taken into consideration for the pylons but not the tube.   The tube will expand and contract based on temperature.  While the pylons will absorb those variances along route, a continuous tube between LAX and SFO will expand several yards or more on hot sunny days.  Perhaps the origin and destination stations could be built on rollers to accommodate changes in tube length.  However, why not use this concept for the transportation of goods instead of people, thus eliminating the need for a toilet while also eliminating those carelessly driven giant 18 wheelers on I-5 and parallel routes.  The capsules could be designed to accommodate standard pallets which could be loaded and offloaded by conveyor directly out of or into standard 53 foot trailers which would be used for normal pickup and delivery service.  The tube could run from San Diego all the way up to Vancouver on the west-coast with additional routes between Miami and Boston on the east coast and directly along the Mississippi river between New Orleans and the Twin Cities.  East west service would be accomplished with three similar tubes originating in NJ, Charlotte and Jacksonville with west coast stations in LA, SFO and Seattle or Portland.   The tubes could be constructed similar to rail lines with side tubes to accommodate the switching of capsules at strategic points along route.  Being that it would be advantageous for freight tube stations to be located in suburban areas the construction cost would be far less than operating between the centers of major cities.   This is a brilliant idea for palatalized freight. 

wandmdave
wandmdave

You must construct additional pylons.

johnny04
johnny04

@urgelt Why can't we cool the air when the fan gets it from the front and before pushes it out in the back like an A/C?

StephenDing
StephenDing

@jrl.photog because it's inconvenient and expensive to fly (for obvious reasons), and it's too long a drive for people who are pressed for time (imagine spending all day or all night driving if you go for a 3-4 day weekend in the other city and you want to maximize your time)

xug
xug

@jrl.photogSounds like you're still living in the 70's buddy.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

First of all, paragraphs.  Learn them, use them, love them.

Next, potty breaks.  Really?  On a 30 minute trip?  What kind squirrel bladder do you have that you can't wait 30 minutes to p e e?

Finally, freight.  The problem with your idea is that trucks go everywhere and this thing doesn't.  Trains are more economical than building this for freight, and trains are already used to distribute massive amounts of freight to transit centers, where trucks take them to their final destination.  This doesn't sound robust enough to handle several thousand tons of freight at once, and anything less isn't economically viable.

So on the bright side, your idea has already been implemented.  But not because of potty breaks and not with some co-ckeyed scheme no one's ever going to build.  We use trains and even if you used something like this, we'd still have just as many trucks on the road as we have now.

urgelt
urgelt

@johnny04 @urgelt It's a closed tube.  Every two minutes, a capsule speeds past at a very high speed.  The air is going to heat up, and so is the tube itself.  Heat dissipation is one of the key challenges, else we'll end up cooking the passengers.

So the Hyperloop concept requires heat sinks.

Since the tube is thick and not open to the outside air, there isn't much that can be done to move heat from inside to outside.  So Mr. Musk intends heat sinks in the capsules themselves.  His solution is to carry water reservoirs and steam accumulators.  As the capsule travels, water is converted into steam and stored.  At the station, the depleted water reservoirs are recharged, the steam is removed, and the capsule is ready, from a heat sink standpoint, for another trip.

urgelt
urgelt

@demers6 @urgelt Yes, there is a big difference.

Read the PDF.  Mr. Musk is talking about capsules whose top speed is indeed faster than sound.

urgelt
urgelt

@raindog469 @urgelt @demers6 raindog469, you're forgetting an important fact.  The air pressure in the tube is actually less than atmospheric pressure on Mars on the ground.

So let's take Mars as our base case:

http://www.aerospaceweb.org/question/atmosphere/q0249.shtml

At 760 miles per hour, a Hyperloop capsule will be traveling at least 200 miles per hour faster than the speed of sound at Martian air pressure - which is close enough to Hyperloop's tube pressurization to be in the ball park.

raindog469
raindog469

@urgelt@demers6 I read the PDF, too. The whole thing. Musk keeps mentioning 760mph/1220kph as its top speed. The speed of sound is 768mph/1236kph. He intends for it to be subsonic, despite all the speculation about sonic booms by journa-- cough, sorry, just threw up in my mouth a little -- members of the press who don't have the attention span for a 50+ page white paper. Direct quote: "Both for trip comfort and safety, it would be best to travel at high subsonic speeds for a 350 mile journey." Go ahead, find the "800mph" figure quoted by many, many media sources. It's not in there.

While Musk does discuss a supersonic transcontinental version, he does so only in the context of it not making economic sense compared to supersonic air travel.