Will Elon Musk's Hyperloop Revolutionize Transportation?

August 13, 2013

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.


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. 


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.


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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