When my grandmother was a girl at the turn of the last century, it would take her all day to travel just 20 miles to Youngstown from her farm outside Columbiana, Ohio. She told me the airplane was one of the most important innovations in her life.
Few things are as fundamental to modern life as getting where you need to go. Now we could be on the brink of another revolution in transportation: the hyperloop.
Picture sitting in a pod inside a nearly airless tube that stretches aboveground for hundreds of miles. Electric motors inside the 11-foot tube accelerate the pod out of the station and slow it down before arrival. Powerful magnets in the tube levitate your pod so you can hurtle friction-free to your destination at nearly the speed of sound.
A lacework of hyperloop transit tubes could spread across the country, mounted high above the ground on pylons and roofed with solar panels to power the system. Distant cities could become as convenient to visit as the local supermarket. And some of the environmental insult that comes from car and plane exhaust could be swept from the skies.
Advocates tout shorter travel times and lower costs than traditional mass transit systems, such as California’s high-speed rail project that’s currently estimated to cost $64 billion.
Well, that’s the promise, anyway.
Hyperloop transportation is more theoretical than practical, although that’s not stopping engineers, students and tech visionaries from pushing to make it a reality. Earlier this year, more than 1,000 university students competed in a two-day contest to design passenger pods. And two rival startups are racing to build the first hyperloop tube as soon as 2018. If they succeed, we could end up with the best of both worlds: spacious suburban living with quick access to once-distant cities for jobs and culture.
And it could start to happen within the next decade.
Musk’s very big idea
The hyperloop is the brainchild of Elon Musk, famous tech visionary and CEO of electric car company Tesla Motors and SpaceX, which aims to build reusable rockets that could ultimately help us colonize other worlds. Musk thinks big.
Four years ago, he suggested a “fifth mode of transportation” — after planes, trains, cars and boats — that would run in a loop between cities and, he hoped, eventually reach hypersonic speeds.
Musk didn’t just float the idea for the world to ponder. He assembled a team of engineers from Tesla and SpaceX who spent almost nine months roughing out hyperloop tube and pod designs and plotting a route between San Francisco and LA. Their 58-page paper, released in August 2013, offered the vision of making the 380-mile trip in just 35 minutes.
“The Hyperloop (or something similar) is, in my opinion, the right solution for the specific case of high-traffic city pairs that are less than about 1500 km or 900 miles apart,” Musk wrote in the paper.
But Musk also said he’s plenty busy running both Tesla and SpaceX, and hoped the designs would inspire others to pick up the challenge.
So far, two companies have.
That initial design concept envisioned hyperloop capsules levitating on pressurized air, like pucks on an air hockey table.
The rival hyperloop companies are keeping Musk’s general approach, including a compressor at the front of each pod to pull the tube’s thin air out of the way. But some things look different. Wider pods will be less claustrophobic, and magnetic levitation looks more promising for floating the pods.
The companies share Musk’s ambitions, though.
“In 30 years, there will be a network of hyperloop systems,” says Rob Lloyd, CEO of Hyperloop One (formerly known as HyperlinkTechnologies) in Los Angeles. “They will carry people. They will carry freight. This will be like the backbone for the physical world.” Lloyd thinks hyperloops are good for 50- to 500-mile trips.
So far, Hyperloop One has raised more than $90 million. Its board includes co-founder and venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar; former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina; and Peter Diamandis, who started the nonprofit X Prize Foundation, which runs big-money competitions to solve big-world problems.
In May, Hyperloop One conducted its first open-air test in North Las Vegas, Nevada. Earlier this month, the company said it could connect the 300 miles between Stockholm and Helsinki in 28 minutes. It expects to open its first full-scale hyperloop in 2020 and to have two more by 2022.
Rival Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has even grander plans that would supplant subways, too. “I think we are the ones for the public transport system — the metro substitute and city-to-city connector,” says CEO Dirk Ahlborn.
HTT’s designs are the crowdsourced effort of more than 100 engineers and other technologists collaborating around the country. Last year, it announced plans to build a prototype five-mile hyperloop in central California. It should be open to the public by the end of 2018 or early 2019, Ahlborn says. After that, HTT expects to begin full-scale construction. “I think the first ones finished will be in Asia, India, Indonesia, Africa or the Middle East,” he says.
Not so fast
Skeptics think Musk’s vision will have trouble standing up to real-world difficulties. “Once you get down to specifics — the homes that’ll be taken out and the businesses disrupted — the costs go up,” says Brookings Institution analyst Robert Puentes.
And Alon Levy, a mathematician at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, frets hyperloops will be a “barf ride” as the pods follow curves around and over obstacles. Building a straighter track costs a lot more.
Advocates counter they can cut costs with solar and wind energy, and say the pods’ regenerative braking will pump energy back into batteries. HTT thinks it can convince real estate developers to help pay for hyperloop construction costs, since nearby houses and office space will rise in value.
“The moment you can have a public transport system that’s not a liability, but generating income, it only makes sense to switch over,” says Ahlborn.
Stephen Shankland (@stshank), a CNET senior writer, tries not to take sides in the religious battles over text editors and video compression standards.
This story appears in the summer 2016 edition of CNET Magazine.