Posted by the San Jose Mercury News Aug. 12, 2013.
By Dana Hull
Coming from almost anyone else, a proposal to move people from San Francisco to Los Angeles through a tube in half an hour would have been dismissed as a crackpot idea.
But after tweeting that he “pulled an all-nighter,” Tesla Motors(TSLA) CEO Elon Musk on Monday unveiled much-anticipated details of his proposed Hyperloop, and transit experts were among those intrigued.
While the concept has not been proved, Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute and a longtime champion of high-speed rail, praised Musk for his vision.
“Elon Musk has great credibility,” Diridon said. “He’s done things that seem impossible, and we need the impossible to get off of petroleum. We all have to pray for his success.”
The futuristic transit system would consist of low-pressure steel tubes with aluminum capsules or pods supported on a cushion of air, and capable of speeds more than 700 miles per hour. The tubes, which would be outfitted with solar panels to power the system, would be built on elevated tracks alongside Interstate 5.
Taking direct aim at the state’s plan for a $69 billion high-speed train, Musk said the Hyperloop would cost merely $6 billion and move people between San Francisco and Los Angeles in about a half-hour rather than three hours.
“How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) — doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars — would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?” he wrote in a 57-page manifesto titled “Hyperloop Alpha.”
“Short of figuring out real teleportation, which would of course be awesome (someone
please do this), the only option for superfast travel is to build a tube over or under the ground that contains a special environment.”
Musk, who has a bachelor’s degree in physics, is the CEO of both electric-vehicle maker Tesla Motors and SpaceX, which is developing rockets and spacecraft for missions to the International Space Station and other planets. He lives in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles and regularly commutes to Tesla’s Palo Alto headquarters by private plane. He has been thinking about the Hyperloop for almost two years, inspired by his dismay at the state’s plans for high-speed rail.
During Tesla’s earnings call last week, Musk said he’d wished he’d never mentioned the Hyperloop, given his demanding responsibilities at SpaceX and Tesla. But on Monday he said he may build a prototype and is willing to invest money and form a company to do it. He also welcomed others to help flesh out his idea and improve it.
“I’m tempted to make a demonstration prototype, but not immediately,” Musk said in a conference call with journalists. “Maybe I could do the beginning bit, then hand it over to someone else.”
Musk, whose net worth is estimated to be roughly $7 billion, said he would invest some of his personal wealth into the project. Roughly a dozen engineers from the aerodynamics teams at Tesla and SpaceX already have worked on the Hyperloop idea, he said.
Musk sees Hyperloop as a fifth and new form of transportation after planes, trains, cars and boats. James E. Moore, director of transportation engineering at the University of Southern California, said Musk’s idea is not far-fetched.
“This isn’t new technology, and from a technology point of view it’s very credible,” Moore said. “We’re talking about taking a vessel, putting it on a fluid (air), and putting it on a closed circuit.”
But Moore cautioned that Musk may be underestimating cost, as well as supply-chain questions and the willingness of capital markets to invest.
“Let’s assume you build it,” he said. “Where do you get parts for the Hyperloop? Who would regulate it? The world is full of good ideas, and most of them will not be realized.”
But Diridon noted that the idea of magnetic levitation in transit has been around for decades. Lockheed Martin studied the idea of high-speed “maglev”corridors in Southern California a decade ago.
“Musk has to develop a conceptual model and then a demonstration system that proves that it will safely operate carrying people, and that will prove how much it costs per mile,” Diridon said. “If we could jump to a new technology, I’d be the first to say ‘Let’s scrap high speed rail.’ But to do that, he’s got to prove it. Right now it’s a concept paper.”
California’s proposed high-speed rail system would connect the Bay Area with Los Angeles in about three hours at speeds of 200 mph. The first track scheduled to be built is a 29-mile section from Merced to Fresno, and nonstop service from the Bay Area to Los Angeles would not begin until 2029 at the earliest. The total cost for the project is estimated at $69 billion, to be funded by state bonds, federal support, cap-and-trade funds and private investments.
“New technology ideas are always worth consideration,” said Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “The more green options Californians have for safe and speedy travel in the future, the better. If and when Mr. Musk pursues his Hyperloop technology, we’ll be happy to share our experience about what it really takes to build a project in California, across seismic zones, minimizing impacts on farms, businesses and communities and protecting sensitive environmental areas and species.”
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.