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The Hyperloop: The Hype Isn't All That Loopy

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Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes? The realization of Hyperloop high-speed transit shuttling people between the two cities at over 750 miles per hour may not be that far off.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk first mentioned the concept for a “fifth mode of transport", which he called the Hyperloop, in 2012. Officially unveiling plans for the new transportation system in 2013, the Hyperloop has been gaining momentum since. The proposed system would transport passengers in suspended pods through low-pressure tubes and would run from Los Angeles to San Francisco parallel to Interstate 5, a distance of 354-mile (570 km) at an average speed of around 598 mph (962 km/h), with a top speed of at a top speed of 760 mph (1,220 km/h). As envisioned by Musk, the Hyperloop would be immune to weather, collision-free, low-power and non-polluting, with twice the speed of a jet. He describes it as a cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table, with no rails required and the capacity to run either below or above ground.

The basic ideas behind the Hyperloop have been speculated on for over a century. Its operation is not unlike the once popular pneumatic tubes that banks, the postal system and department stores used as early as the 1890s, wherein money, mail, or messages were inserted in capsules that were transported via suction through tubes connecting different departments. The obstacles in translating this basic concept to high-speed rail have been friction and air resistance, which grow substantially with speed. The idea of a vacuum train, or vactrain, theoretically eliminated these obstacles by proposing that magnetically levitating trains move through airless tubes or tunnels, potentially at speeds thousands of miles per hour. However, the inhibiting cost of “maglev” and the difficulty of maintaining a vacuum over large distances have kept such system from ever being built.

The Hyperloop proposes to operate by sending its specially designed capsules or "pods" through a continuous steel tube maintained at partial vacuum. Each capsule floats a fraction of an inch on a layer of air by way of air-bearing skis - similar to how pucks are suspended on an air hockey table – without the use of maglev, and allowing for speeds unsustainable by wheels. Induction motors along the tube will accelerate and decelerate the capsule to the required speed for each section of the route.

A deal has been made between the Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Firm and California landowners to build a five-mile test track along Interstate 5. This won’t be long enough, however, to attain the speeds projected for the full LA-to-SF journey, but only about 200 miles per hour, a quarter of the ideal top speed. The test track alone is estimated to cost $100 million. Hyperloop Technologies Inc. has established headquarters in a 6,500-sq.-ft. industrial warehouse in downtown Los Angeles and the company website has job postings for engineers, designers, technicians, an office manager and an “aerodynamicist." We’re not sure what the last job description entails, but it will likely involve helping Musk achieve his long-range dream of Hyperlooping between Los Angeles and New York in 45 minutes.

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