To the Vacuum Tube, Robin!

By Louis Basenese, The Daily Reckoning Aug 19, 2013, 10:27 AM 

Throughout history, we’ve witnessed some spectacular, world-changing revolutions.

Elon Musk wants to lead the next one.

Exactly one week ago, the billionaire entrepreneur behind PayPal, Tesla Motors (TSLA) and SpaceX released his much-anticipated design for a high-speed, futuristic form of travel called the Hyperloop.

If he pulls it off, it would easily qualify as a revolution in the transportation sector. A massive one, too, as it would mean the creation of an entirely new mode of travel.

As Musk asks in his “Hyperloop Alpha” design, “Is there truly a new mode of transport – a fifth mode after planes, trains, cars and boats – that… is practical to implement?”

He believes the Hyperloop is it.

The question is: Will it work?

To the Vacuum Tube, Robin!

To refresh your memory, the Hyperloop would basically put people into capsules and blast them through vacuum tunnels at incredible speeds to their destinations.

How? Well, in my Hyperloop column a few weeks ago, I noted that because there’s no air in vacuum tunnels, it would eliminate wind resistance and drag. Being in a tunnel would eliminate other adverse weather conditions, too.

This is the kind of system that Colorado’s ET3 has designed, which Musk referenced on Monday. But he notes the difficulty in maintaining a perfect vacuum over long distances. In addition to the capsules stopping at air-filled stations along the way, any crack or leak could compromise the system.

So what does he propose?

Musk’s “All-Nighter” on the Hyperloop

In answering whether a fifth mode of transportation is possible, Musk’s 57-page “Hyperloop Alpha” PDF says the system must beat existing alternatives by being…

  • Safer
  • Faster
  • Lower cost
  • More convenient
  • Immune to weather
  • Sustainably self-powering
  • Resistant to earthquakes
  • Not disruptive to those along the route

Having tweeted that he “pulled an all-nighter working on Hyperloop,” Musk’s proposal describes…

  • A closed loop that would shuttle passengers and cars between Los Angeles and San Francisco in aluminum pods within an elevated pneumatic tube. Musk says, “The capsules are supported on a cushion of air, featuring pressurized air and aerodynamic lift. The capsules are accelerated via a magnetic linear accelerator affixed at various stations on the tube with rotors contained in each capsule.
  • The pods would leave every 30 seconds and travel at up to 800 mph, meaning an LA-San Francisco journey would take less than 30 minutes. Given Musk’s concerns with a fully sealed vacuum tube, he says the Hyperloop would be a low-pressure tube, thereby producing less friction while still achieving high speeds.
  • The tube would be built on columns about 50 to 100 yards apart, running alongside Interstate 5, Musk told Bloomberg Businessweek.

Okay, pretty cool so far. There are pros and cons, though…

Musk says his design is suited to cities less than 900 miles apart, which endure heavy congestion. (Hallelujah! I’d dump I-95 for the Hyperloop any day.) “Passengers may enter and exit Hyperloop at stations located either at the ends of the tube, or branches along the tube length,” he says.

I must admit to being a bit disappointed that the system wouldn’t be appropriate for longer distances – transcontinental or international travel. Musk says supersonic air travel would be better. (Hmm… Concorde, anyone?)

As for the other key criteria…

~ Safety: Musk says that with 30 seconds between departures, there would be five miles between the pods. And “there’s an emergency brake.” (I would hope so!) He also said the tunnel travel would nullify weather problems. And in discussing California’s earthquake danger, pods “can’t really be derailed,” so they “aren’t going to fall out of the sky.”

~ Power: Musk has talked before about making a solar-powered system.

~ Cost: Musk estimates that a person-only Hyperloop could be built for $6 billion. A people-and-car system would cost $10 billion.

Sound like a lot?

Well, consider the motivation behind Musk’s Hyperloop: California’s new so-called high-speed rail system, which Musk calls a “bullet train to nowhere.”

Rumored to cost $70 billion, Musk asks why California – one of the world’s largest economies, home of Silicon Valley, and with some of the world’s greatest tech companies – “would build a bullet train that’s both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world.” Comparing it to the Hyperloop, he says, “The train would be both slower, more expensive to operate (if unsubsidized) and less safe by two orders of magnitude than flying, so why would anyone use it?”

Good point. But even if the Hyperloop costs a lot more (and it probably will), current estimates are a long way off that $70-billion figure.

But there are other obvious issues…

Problems With the Loop

With a project of this magnitude, hurdles are inevitable…

~ Infrastructure: For a start, who will build the Hyperloop infrastructure? And where will it be built?

In both cases, it’s guaranteed to encounter a bureaucratic quagmire in various cities, towns and counties. But we’d urge politicians to consider the economic benefits of the system for companies involved and job creation in many areas.

~ Engineering: And quoted in USA Today, Sam Jaffe, a clean technology analyst at Navigant Research, states “It’s a hard engineering problem to solve when you’re pressuring air.” He explains that while Musk’s estimates are accurate, air and heat compression is tough to control, especially with the lack of space in the tube. And while Musk proposes water tanks on the pods as a coolant, they may not be able to carry enough water.

~ Help! Musk says he’s got “more than enough” to focus on with Tesla and SpaceX than to run solo with the Hyperloop. So he wants help – namely from other investors, engineers and scientists. His initiative and work in getting the ball rolling and opening the floor to criticism and improvement is great. It’s admirable that it’s an open-source design that won’t be patented. But will he get the help he wants?

Ultimately, there are challenges – from the technology, design, construction, safety, cost, weather and even terrorism. But any revolutionary project or product faces challenges – and creating a fifth mode of transport is hugely ambitious. The existing four modes all faced them – and still do. It will never be perfect, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried.

If you think it sounds fanciful – or even impossible – consider that Musk already has an impressive track record of innovation and entrepreneurship. With Tesla, he launched America’s first car company for half a century (and electric cars, to boot). He’s also been successful with SpaceX.

Sure – the Hyperloop may never happen, but Musk gets top marks for effort and entrepreneurial spirit. “You want the future to be better than the past – or at least I do,” he told a Hyperloop event on Google. The execution of that vision remains to be seen.

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