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Will Elon Musk's Hyperloop Revolutionize Transportation?

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Yesterday, Elon Musk -- the man behind PayPal, Tesla [NSDQ:TSLA], and SpaceX -- took the wraps off another potentially groundbreaking project, "Hyperloop". Will it revolutionize transportation on Planet Earth? Maybe.

WHAT IS HYPERLOOP?

As ideas go, Hyperloop isn't completely original. Remember Logan's Run and the futuristic travel pods that Michael York used to get around the domed city? Hyperloop is a little like that. 

It's also a lot like the pneumatic tubes still used at drive-through banks. Lay those tubes horizontally across an elevated, monorail-ish system of supports, and you've got the Hyperloop. Low air pressure in the tube reduces friction, as do air jets that keep travel pods off the surface of the tube, allowing it to travel very, very fast. Oh, and it's solar powered, too. (If you're interested, Musk & Co discuss Hyperloop's physics in detail in this PDF.)

When complete, Hyperloop could move pods containing up to 28 passengers at speeds of 800 miles per hour, with one pod departing about every 30 seconds. Musk has proposed that the first Hyperloop system connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, which makes sense for three reasons:

1) It's a heavily traveled route.

2) California is already planning a high-speed rail line to link the two cities. 

3) California's budget for that project is $68 billion -- far more than the $6 billion Musk estimates the Hyperloop system would cost.

If Hyperloop is built -- and if it works according to Musk's projections -- travelers could make the trip from LA to SF in about 30 minutes. 

WILL IT HAPPEN?

Musk says that the plans for Hyperloop are open source, meaning that he's put them into the public domain. Musk makes no intellectual property claim to those plans and says that anyone with the necessary resources is welcome to amend the plans and build the Hyperloop on her/his own. 

That's because, as Musk first stated, he's far too busy with Tesla and SpaceX to oversee a project of Hyperloop's magnitude -- though he'd be willing to invest some of his own money in the project.

On Monday, however, he backtracked. Musk said that he might be able to oversee "the beginning bit... and then hand it over to somebody else".

We see where this is going.

PROSPECTS

Elon Musk is a control freak. That's not a bad thing: many good leaders are. Without obsessive visionaries like Musk, potentially groundbreaking projects would become watered-down and forgettable.

Clearly, the man is aching to lead the Hyperloop project. Not only does he love a good challenge, but like many leaders, he's a bit of an egomaniac. He'd like to see his name associated with a revolutionary transportation innovation. (Hyperloop would be the third on his resume, after Tesla and SpaceX.)

At this point, we'd give the project a 50/50 chance of going forward. Weighing in its favor is the fact that California is already planning such a system, and Hyperloop stands to be much, much cheaper. Also, the LA-SF route is the ideal size: as Musk points out, Hyperloop works best at lengths under 900 miles. Anything beyond that, and flight is more economical.

On the other hand, Hyperloop is fairly outside-the-box, conceptually and physically, which can be off-putting to investors -- to say nothing of bureaucrats and their teams of risk-managers. Also, Musk isn't fully onboard to lead the project, and Hyperloop needs a charismatic champion like Musk to see it through. And finally, let's not forget, $6 billion may be cheaper than California's planned $68 billion, but it still ain't chump change.

For more on Hyperloop, check out different takes from our colleagues at Motor Authority and Green Car Reports

And please, share your thoughts on Hyperloop, Musk, and the future of transportation in the Comments below.

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Comments (6)
  1. No doubt, $6 billion dollars is a lot of money! It of course really only makes sense in the scale of public infrastructure projects. Hopefully we'll see a demonstration article soon, for much cheaper. Then, if that works, this would be a very hard idea to ignore.
     
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  2. As much as I've enjoyed reading journalists speculations (Car Connection and GCRs are doing as well as any), I'd love to see some interviews/debates with knowledgeable engineers about the feasibility of the technologies involved, and specifically the technologies that Elon has asked for help on (pg 57 of his proposal).
     
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  3. First off, to Mr. Musk...you go guy, the Tesla is an inspiration and Hyperloop would be no different. But what I really want to speak about here is California and their sad state of affairs.

    First, I'm a born and raised Angeleno, so I'm not speaking from an outside position here, when I say:

    Is there any more obvious example of California's obliviousness to reality than their budget for a system expending SIXTY-EIGHT-BILLION (WITH A 'B') FRIGGIN' DOLLARS...when they don't have one single 'cent' to pay for it? I mean, come on guys...GET FRIGGING REAL HERE!

    My dad and granddad both taught me...if you can't afford to pay for it...forget about it!

    Wise up California or be the first BK state in the union!
     
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  4. Isn't it interesting he's not trying to sell this to China, Japan, or Europe, where he'd find a more receptive audience, , both in passengers and finance? Or perhaps the Texas Triangle or NY -DC?
    Maybe he wants to divert money from the high Speed Rail project so it won't be built, then abandon the Hyperloop, leaving California with nothing.
    At least the HSR project is fully planned out, while Hyperloop only exists as a drawing on a napkin - like the Laffer Curve! And you all know how well THAT works!
    BTW, the Hyperloop is LA - HAYWARD, not SF! And Hayward happens to be Musk's HQ.
     
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  5. There's no conspiracy here. Just a sincere will to do good and benefit humanity, bringing us--even as we kick and scream along the way--to a better future that lives up to the promise of the age of information.
     
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  6. So far the progression of this idea and Musk's involvement in it is following the same pattern as Tesla Motors. His goal was to invest and oversee, not run it day to day. I'd be very surprised that if this ever gets built, that he doesn't end up running it day to day as a SpaceX/Tesla co-engineered project. Musk "tried very hard" to find a CEO to run Tesla successfully, but couldn't...and who could possibly live up to Elon's standards if his standard is as high as he holds himself? He's Iron Man, after all.
     
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