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Elon Musk’s Hyperloop hype ignores practical problems

Posted August 16, 2013

'Hyperloop' would link LA-SF in 30 mins, if built

You’ve got to hand it to Elon Musk – he certainly dreams big. The entrepreneur loves to take on tough technical challenges and turn them into business opportunities. He revolutionized online payment services with PayPal, built the first successful electric-car company with Tesla Motors and launched one of the first commercial space transportation companies with SpaceX.

But his proposed Hyperloop transportation system – which he unveiled Monday as a faster and lower-cost alternative to a high-speed train service between San Francisco and Los Angeles – may prove to be his toughest challenge yet. While the science behind the idea seems sound, turning it into reality would require overcoming a host of engineering design obstacles, not to mention political and funding hurdles.

“The high-level concept doesn’t violate any fundamental laws of physics,” John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said Tuesday in an interview. But he added, “I’m not sure whether the details work.”

The Hyperloop would consist of carlike capsules traveling at near the speed of sound through enclosed tubes. The capsules, which would contain about 28 passengers each, would ride on pockets of air, propelled by a linear induction motor. They would travel through a low-pressure air system that would limit resistance and friction without requiring the amount of energy needed to maintain a complete vacuum.

According to Musk, the system would cost just $6 billion and get passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes – less than one-tenth the price of California’s proposed high-speed rail system, while moving passengers five times as fast.

At first blush, the concept seems to come from the realm of pulp sci-fi novels. It reminded me of a comic book I had as a kid in which a character traveled from Los Angeles to Tokyo on a high-speed train that traveled through a tunnel deep inside the Earth.


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