Transportation is about to change in a big way. This article won’t talk about cars. In fact, the lack of car talk may be representative of the foreseeable future where we no longer talk about cars on a regular basis. Instead in the future we’ll be talking about how San Franciscans can leave for a long lunch break in L.A. and be back just in time for their afternoon meeting. Or how we can arrange for a “over-day” shipping at very low cost. Maybe we’ll talk about how domestic flights no longer make good business sense.

The days of planes, trains, and automobiles (and ships) are numbered and a fifth mode of transportation has been proposed. Elon Musk, some have compared him to Tony Stark minus the iron suit, also cofounder of PayPal, SpaceX, SolarCity, and Tesla Motors, has just announced a proposal for an above ground tube and pod/capsule transportation system. This is Futurama technology. A rough approximation of this technology in practice is a blend between those vacuum science experiment tubes that allow a feather to fall as fast a bowling ball and a bank’s pneumatic tube that sucks your signed checks and spits out cash. Instead of a vessel stuffed with cash it’s a vessel stuffed with people and cargo. Musk estimates a 35 MINUTE ride to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco. By car, it’s currently 5 hours and 35 minutes.

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The tube is designed to be constructed above ground and operate in a low pressure, near vacuum environment. The pod/capsule will house an electric compressor fan that will help transfer high pressure air from the front of the vessel to the rear, while air bearings will help the vessel glide along the tube similar to how air hockey tables work. There are other Musk ventures planned as well such as the possibility of using solar panels located on top of the tubes to harvest some renewable energy, and battery technologies to power the overall system. You can catch the rest of the proposal here, it’s worth the read.Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 10.34.00 PM

With such high operating speeds and infrastructure of hundreds of miles of tube there are many economic and technical challenges that arise. What will happen to the tube when an earthquake strikes? What happens when there’s a power outage and you happen to be traveling when/where solar power is not accessible? Will there be a Hyperloop roadside assistance when one of your air-bearings gives out? How will the tube stand up to Mother Nature’s other arsenal?

Turning radius is another interesting technical challenge. The quickest way between two points is a straight line and for the Hyperloop to achieve a 35 minute ride between Los Angeles and San Francisco it requires a fairly straight route. When traveling along a curved path you will feel centripetal acceleration which is an acceleration perpendicular to the path of your travel. This is dependent on your velocity and the radius of the curve. Depending on how fast you’re going or the tightness of the curve this can be an uncomfortable sensation. In order for the Hyperloop to not kill any of its passengers as it goes around a bend the radius of some turns could go up to 2.28 miles, which will generate up to a comfortable 0.5 g’s at 300 mph.

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At an estimated cost of $6 billion, Musk estimates a $20 one way ticket, less than 9% of the cost of the proposed high speed rail system between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Extrapolating the 35 minute ride under ideal conditions for a trip between New York City to Los Angeles results in a roughly four to five hour ride, quicker and potentially cheaper than your traditional plane ride.

Is this the next breakthrough transportation technology? Proposals such as these are always optimistic and sexy and reading through it seems like it’s a very likely possibility that it will change the way we live and travel. However, as technologies progress hurdles will arise, politics get in the way, etc. etc. Reality sets in and dampens the excitement and next thing you know we’ll have another “Who Killed The Electric Car” style documentary.

What do you think of this technology? Is it a big breakthrough or just another Elon Musk hype?


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