There have been a number of ‘teaser’ pre-releases over the last several months about a revolutionary new transportation technology that Elon Musk (of Tesla and SpaceX fame) is supporting, and this week saw his official and detailed release.
The earlier concepts suggested passenger pods swishing through vacuum tubes at speeds twice that of airplanes. The ‘vision’ released this week – and now termed the Hyperloop – is more practical. The tubes will no longer be vacuums, and the speed is now up to about 760 mph, but Musk says that will still get people between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 35 minutes, and with a total cost to build the system between the two cities of about $6 billion. He suggests his system could be up and running in as little as ten years.
This contrasts with California’s high-speed rail concept, which will cost more than $60 billion and more likely more than $100 billion, with journey times vaguely referred to as ‘under three hours’ – in other words, four or five times slower, and completion currently not expected until almost two decades from now (a date that will inevitably slip). Oh – one more thing. Although apparently pressing ahead with the $60 – $100 billion extravaganza, California has no money to pay for it and no idea where the money will all come from.
Rather than welcoming the concept and suspending the ridiculous high-speed rail boondoggle while reviewing Musk’s admittedly far from ‘shovel ready’ concept, the powers that be in California are preferring to ridicule it and stick with what they know and apparently/inexplicably love – ridiculously expensive and disappointingly slow traditional trains.
We’re not endorsing the Hyperloop without reservation ourselves, and we quite like the somewhat cynical tone of this piece, which also provides the clearest explanation we’ve seen of the project. But Musk could be wrong by a cost factor of ten and a speed factor of four and still have a better system; we think it deserves serious study rather than eyeball rolling ridicule.
Musk is, after all, the only person to provide a commercial private industry space craft service to the space station, and the only man to get a high quality high performance electric car successfully to market. That’s not to say anything he touches is assured of outstanding success, and quite likely his numbers will prove to be as optimistic as his earlier projections for both his electric cars and space capabilities have proven to be.
But he does get things done which others initially derided as impossible and impractical, and we think his latest project deserves attention and support.
We would also point out one negative comment we feel to be grossly unfair. The article we linked to above asks ‘who would want giant tubes running through their community’? I guess the writer has only ever seen a sedate 79 mph Amtrak train.
The answer to his question is ‘any and all communities would vastly prefer a relatively quiet and unobtrusive, safe, closed tube system as compared to the massively noisier and more obtrusive high-speed rail system, together with the massively larger swatch of land taken for two lanes of high-speed rail track’. The writer really needs to experience the disruptive effects of a 200+ mph passenger train exploding past to understand what that is like before he condemns the concept of nice quiet contained tubes!
So we are cautiously supportive of the Hyperloop. Just because something is totally different to other things doesn’t mean it should be rejected.
While talking about fanciful and futuristic forms of transport, here’s another interesting concept, but this time much further away from becoming a practical reality – an ion drive airplane. To give you the ‘money pitch’ first, this new type of ‘no moving part’ thrust technology promises a greatly more efficient form of propulsion than present jet engines.
A regular jet engine gives about 2 newtons of thrust per kilowatt of power; an ionic wind thruster would give about 110 newtons per kilowatt. No need to fuss over what newtons are, the key point is an ion drive gives you at least 50 times more of them. This would be similar to your car, maybe currently with 20 mpg, now being able to provide 1,000 mpg.
The technology is also quiet and non-polluting (other than for whatever process is used to generate the electricity to power the drive), and, as we said above, has essentially no moving parts. But it is rife with current challenges and is a huge way from appearing on any airplane, any time soon.
However, it is an exciting glimpse into a possible future that we may or may not live to see. More details here.
Both these new technologies are speculative. And not all future visions come to pass. Such as, for example, most of the fascinating visions of the future showcased in this retrospective pictorial.
It is interesting, isn’t it, how the future, as it unfolds, simultaneously excites, surprises and disappoints us.
Lastly, maybe we don’t need ion drives and hyperloops to enjoy truly high-speed travel. Why not nothing more fanciful than a diesel truck? Here’s a valedictory piece about one that can travel at 285 mph.