Imagine ground travel at 700 miles per hour. That’s faster than the top speed of a 787 Dreamliner. Just think how fast you could get somewhere. What if you could walk down the street of your nearest big city and access this mode of travel? If Elon Musk has anything to say about it, it might not be far off.
Yesterday, Musk tweeted, “just received verbal govt approval for The Boring Company to build an underground NY-Phil-Balt-DC Hyperloop. NY-DC in 29 mins.”
But, what does all this mean?
Musk is the billionaire entrepreneur famous for his Tesla automobiles. Now he is getting serious about mass transportation.
Hyperloop technology was first explained in 2013. Here, Musk described the vision as “a fifth mode” of transportation. Before came airplanes, trains, automobiles and boats, and now comes Hyperloop. But, “only if it is actually better than flying or driving,” said Musk.
Hyperloop, in a nutshell, is “a tube over or under the ground that contains a special environment.” This special environment, basically a pressurized cushion of air, would allow a “pod” to travel at speeds of up to 700 miles per hour. For the initial design, these pods would be about seven and one-half feet in diameter. They would carry only passenger, and the ride would be extremely smooth. It would have to be; such a system, if working properly, would require an almost frictionless environment. It’s tricky for scientists but comfortable for passengers.
Hyperloop would also be self-sustaining. According the Musk’s paper, “by placing solar panels on top of the tube, the Hyperloop can generate far in excess of the energy needed to operate.” It would also be resistant to earthquakes. With the system built on pylons, “where the tube is not rigidly fixed at any point,” it would allow for increased ability to absorb shocks and tremors.
Another benefit to Hyperloop would weather resistance. Travel would occur in a self-contained tube. This means outside weather forces would be almost non-existent.
Elon Musk originally explained the Hyperloop concept, also known as Hyperloop Alpha, in his 2013 white paper. There, he used the Los Angeles to San Francisco route to describe his above-ground concept. The new route, New York to Washington, D.C., would be underground. That would change some of the dynamics, possibly including the claim of earthquake resistance. However, with large earthquakes occurring much less often on the East Coast, the need for such a design characteristic would be minimized.
Musk has a company, The Boring Company, which would do the digging. The tunnel would be constructed similarly to the tube. There would still be the partial vacuum and pressurized cushion of air. This would allow the pods to “levitate” and create that almost frictionless environment. This could also allow the “NY-DC in 29 mins.”
There are tricks with boring tunnels to make them cost efficient. This is explained in more detail on the company’s website. First, the diameter of the tunnel needs to be small. A tunnel diameter of 14 feet would allow for the pods to run efficiently. At the same time, it would greatly reduce the cost from more conventional tunnel sizes. Second, the speed of the Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) needs to be increased. Currently, “a snail is effectively 14 times faster than a soft-soil TBM.” There are various ways that this could be done. These include digging continuously, automating the tunnel boring process, shifting from diesel-electric to straight electric for machine operation, and investing in research and development.
Ultimately, for Hyperloop to really work as envisioned, tunnel borings would need to be quick and efficient. This is because many tunnels would be needed to accommodate the many different routes that the pods could take to move people where they want to go. Here is where the Hyperloop Movement could move things along.
From Hyperloop Alpha came the Hyperloop Movement. Since Hyperloop Alpha was set up as an open source project, others have had access to the technological information. The Hyperloop Movement has created worldwide excitement about transportation possibilities, and competitions and other projects are happening around the globe. Teams are building and improving on the concept — the exact point of open source projects. Projects of this type may allow projects like Hyperloop to move forward more quickly than normal. This is because they allow for “open collaboration for innovation and production.” Large numbers of teams are working toward a common goal. This means the technology can develop and advance through new ideas and breakthroughs.
There could be roadblocks to development, however. Even though Musk indicated “verbal” government approval, that is a long way from written approval. There are also questions about which government Musk was referring to. There is speculation that he was referring to the federal government. Other governments, both state and local, have indicated that they have yet to be consulted or briefed on this project. Before consultations or briefings, it is unlikely that any approval will be forthcoming from those officials. Without that approval, the project can still proceed with design. However, groundbreaking could be further down the road.
Hyperloop is an exciting technology. It might someday alleviate serious traffic problems in our urban areas. Think about how a nice, quick ride from O’Hare into downtown Chicago might feel. Or Dallas to Houston in under an hour. And, it’s not just in the U.S. Europe is actively exploring this technology also. The possibilities are far-ranging. And, with people like Elon Musk and others who are so excited and ready to build, it might not be long before we “catch a pod into the city.”
[Featured Image by Mike Corder/AP Images]