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Hyperloop: Hype or a Transportation Revolution?

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Elon Musk is a celebrated visionary for reinventing the electric vehicle market with Tesla and giving hope to future space travel with his SpaceX venture. But another Musk brainchild may turn out to be the biggest game-changer of all. It’s called Hyperloop and it promises to be faster, cheaper, cleaner and more convenient than other high-speed transportation systems, with the potential for passengers to zip from San Francisco to Los Angeles—some 380 miles—in about 30 minutes. 

Musk conceived the idea, which involves transporting groups of people and/or freight in pods through pressurized tubes at near-supersonic speeds, several years ago. He detailed the system in a 57-page white paper that described it as a “fifth mode” of transport after boats, trains, cars and airplanes. But with an already more than full plate loaded up with Tesla and SpaceX commitments, Musk opted to open source Hyperloop for others to refine and implement.

Skeptics were quick to dismiss Hyperloop as little more than a science fiction pipe dream. But others seized the ball from Musk and are hyper-sprinting to turn the concept into a reality. Several different organizations plan to open test tracks this year and aim to commercialize the technology within five years. Two similarly named California-based companies—Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) and Hyperloop Technologies—are leading the effort, albeit with very different approaches. 

HTT is using a crowd-sourcing strategy, engaging teams of independent engineers and designers—including moonlighters from major tech firms and universities working in exchange for equity—to tackle different aspects of the program, ranging from capsule and propulsion engineering to station design, route optimization and financial models. With the hodgepodge effort, HTT is moving forward with plans to build a 5-mile test track in Quay Valley, California. It also has signed a development agreement with the government of Slovakia and is talking with leaders in India and Asia. 

Meanwhile, Hyperloop Technologies has assembled an all-star roster of engineering and business leaders—many with close ties to Musk—to put its plan in motion. The company has more than 140 employees and looks to more than double its size by next year. It’s led by venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar (an early investor in Uber), SpaceX veteran Brogan BamBrogan, former Cisco President Rob Lloyd and Jim Messina, who led President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. The group, which quickly raised $8.5-million from investors and is targeting another $80-million infusion, is plotting its “Kitty Hawk moment” with a 3-mile test track near Las Vegas that it plans to open by year-end. 

The Hyperloop “vactrain” concept involves a transport pod that is levitated by magnets and accelerated on a cushion of air by linear induction motors and air compressors in a partial-vacuum tube. The controlled environment is designed to minimize friction and air resistance, allowing the pod to quickly achieve and sustain speeds of  750 mph or more with relatively little energy. Hyperloop Tech estimates that its system will only need propulsion for about 5 percent of the trip and can essentially coast the rest of the time. 

In addition to actually building and operating a functional Hyperloop, developers have to address such things as earthquake-proofing the system, managing traffic and acquiring long distance right-of-ways and access into city centers, not to mention how to deal with equipment malfunctions, accidents and emergency evacuations. Costs are another unknown, with estimates ranging from less than $10-billion to several orders of magnitude more. There’s also the question of how such rapid acceleration and lateral speed will affect the human body, as well as how people will cope with being in a narrow, windowless capsule stuck inside a sealed steel tunnel. For some, the very idea is barf-inducing. 

At this point, there’s no harm in getting caught up in the hype. Visionaries need to dream big—or the Wright brothers never would have gotten off the ground and Neil Armstrong wouldn’t have made that giant leap forward. 

With more than 25 years of experience, Steve Plumb has covered every aspect of the auto industry as an industry writer, editor and marketing professional. He was the founding editor of AutoTech Daily and rejoined the AutoBeat team in 2015. He previously was the editorial director for a leading public 
relations company. 

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