Hyperloop: the future of travel or pure science fiction?

Elon Musk’s Hyperloop vision outlines a system that could transport passengers in pods
Elon Musk’s Hyperloop vision outlines a system that could transport passengers in pods at near-supersonic speed. Musk says it would be viable on routes up to 1,500km or 900 miles long.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk this week released details of his Hyperloop transport concept, which he says could provide a viable alternative to short-haul air travel, high-speed rail and travelling by car. According to the paper, Hyperloop would reduce the journey time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to just 30 minutes. This compares to 75 minutes by plane and around five-and-a-half hours by car.

In case you’re not fully aware of what Hyperloop actually is, the concept is based on having pods travel through a low-pressure tube that would be suspended above the ground. Each pod would have a compressor on the front to pass the air to the rear and some of the air would be used to create a cushion underneath the pod on which it could ride. Electric induction motors at the beginning, middle and end points of the tube would be used to accelerate and decelerate the pods. Musk says the whole system could run on solar power and tickets would cost as little as $20.

From a passenger perspective, it sounds great – drastically reduced journey times, cheaper ticket prices and a transport system that is self-powering and entirely weather- and delay-proof. What’s not to like? Well, the fact that Musk hasn’t taken into account any external factors is something of a problem. Now, I’m not saying this is impossible. If that were the case, engineers and scientists the world over would already have dismissed the concept. The issue, however, is that much of the technology that is needed for Hyperloop to become a reality doesn’t yet exist and there are bound to be economic issues that could potentially derail Hyperloop before the concept moves any further.

Hyperloop cabin concept
Elon Musk has calculated that Hyperloop could transport as many as 7.4 million people annually each way between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Although Musk talks of $6 billion development costs (that’s ten-times less than the cost of the high-speed rail link between San Francisco and LA that Musk is strongly opposed to) and $20 tickets, he does nothing to address the fact that tens of billions more would have to be spent on developing and testing new technologies. On top of that, you’ve got to add the cost of acquiring the land itself. If he can prove that the system is a truly viable alternative mode of transport to the plane, train and car, the investment could surely be justified. However, outside investment and support would be integral, and this is where a major problem lies.

Securing this input from travel industry stakeholders and government agencies that are often averse to funding much-needed new terminals at existing facilities or even investing in affordable and readily available technology to address two-hour queues at immigration and security check points is a huge challenge on its own.

José Mariano López, Founder and CEO of zero2infinity, outlined the potential of a Hyperloop-style transportation system to delegates,
At FTE Global 2012, José Mariano López, Founder and CEO of zero2infinity, outlined the potential of a Hyperloop-style transportation system to delegates, proving that FTE is ahead of the curve when it comes to the future of travel. Make sure you don’t miss out on gaining similar insight at FTE Global 2013 by registering here.

Furthermore, the preliminary concept envisages a system of tubes and capsules that would travel directly above the California highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Gaining permission to build a new airport terminal outside of a city centre can often take years, so how long would it take to convince the government and the public that building a futuristic transport system directly above a highway is a sensible and safe idea?

The Hyperloop ‘tubes’ that carry the passenger pods
The Hyperloop ‘tubes’ that carry the passenger pods would be supported by pillars, which would be six metres (20 ft) high in most places, and the whole system would run on solar power.

Admittedly, Musk clearly didn’t intend this paper to be the actual blueprint for Hyperloop, but with so many technological and financial hurdles to overcome, and a large number of questions left unanswered, for now, the concept is still far more ‘science fiction’ that ‘potential reality’. Hyperloop is certainly an exciting proposition from a passenger experience viewpoint, but with so many significant hurdles standing in its way, it could well remain just that – a proposition – for a very long time to come.

That said, the fact that Hyperloop is being spearheaded by the man who has already docked a private spacecraft on the International Space Station and developed profitable electric cars makes it pretty much impossible to completely dismiss the concept.

What do you think of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop concept? Is it a viable alternative to short-haul air travel and high-speed rail, or nothing more than science fiction? Leave your comments below.

FTE Global 2013How new technologies will shape the passenger experience of the future is at the heart of Future Travel Experience 2013, which will take place in Las Vegas from 4-6 September 2013. In the two conference streams – FTE ‘On the Ground’ and FTE ‘Up in the Air’ – airlines, airports, technology providers, architects and futurists will gather to explore the theme of ‘Reinventing the passenger experience through innovation, personalization and connectivity’.
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  1. Binh

    This is nothing more than a scam to sabotage the CA high-speed rail project. $6 billion won’t even cover the right-of-way acquisition costs. Add to that the environmental impact studies, costs related to frivolous lawsuits, and attacks by the oil lobbyists, and the price of this unproven technology exceeds that high-speed rail. No one has been able to answer what happens when one of the support towers shifts out of perfect alignment or the tube develops an air link. What happens when a fire breaks out on board? How do you escape from one of these when the air pressure system breaks down en-route, and your stuck for hours in 100+ degree heat? It’s not like a train where you can simply pop out the emergency window or open the doors and walk away. This is transportation vaporware.

    • Scott

      Go read the white paper before you make comments about the system. Certainly things like right of ways are an issue that are not adequately covered, but understand the proposed technology before you knock it.

  2. Chris

    Above the California Highway? Roads have alignments giving car-velocity design speeds. The Highway has bends. Compare these with the turn radius for moderate g at passenger aircraft speeds. Disney may sponsor the project. What a ride! This is why even high-speed rail links above 120mph have very much their own large-radius alignments and independent infrastructure. Note recent example in Spain, with a train failing to decelerate from high-speed track to unsuitably tight bend on old alignment.

  3. Andy

    Interestingly, this concept is not totally new. Back in the mid-1950s in the UK, there was a boys comic, the Eagle, whose chief character, Dan Dare, a space pioneer, had pictures in the comic strip of just such a hyperloop system!

    • Steve Yaffe

      This has been a recurring theme in science fiction – even a Star Trek episode as I recall, on a planet with a mined-out core. Tunnels connecting many points on the planet, functioning as pneumatic tubes.