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The Hyperloop: Will It Make the Automobile Obsolete?

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On: Wed, Jan 21, 2015 at 11:33AM | By: Bill Wilson

The Hyperloop: Will It Make the Automobile Obsolete?

When it comes to mass transit, Americans are tepid users at best. Let the Europeans and Japanese have their bullet trains and magnetic levitation; we will stick with our cars and trucks, thank you very much. That may be about to change, however, if a revolutionary new idea proposed by Tesla founder Elon Musk becomes reality. Known as the Hyperloop, it would make getting from point A to point B faster, safer, and more breathtaking than ever before.

Musk is no stranger to visionary concepts. An early internet pioneer, he amassed a considerable fortune in the late ‘90s and early 2000s helping to develop services like PayPal. He currently heads both Tesla Motors, the world’s leading builder of electric cars, and SpaceX, which seeks to revolutionize how humans get into outer space.

With the Hyperloop, Musk brings his penchant for big ideas to the field of public transportation. The idea is elegant in its simplicity: send people hurtling from city to city inside metallic capsules placed within sealed tubes, using the same principle that operates household vacuum cleaners. Their experience would be remarkably similar to riding on a modern subway train, except that the capsules would zip along at speeds in excess of 700 mph.

This idea isn’t new; it was actually used for a brief period in the 19th century, using steam-powered fans to shuttle commuters across a one-block distance in New York City. Famed scientist and rocket pioneer Robert Goddard proposed a large-scale version as early as 1910.

Musk’s plan is to create a five-mile-long test track as a proof-of-concept prototype that would serve as the model for a larger installation, one that would link population centers across the United States. He revealed his plans during a Texas transportation forum meeting on January 15.

Musk was fuzzy on the exact details, but indicated that the initial facility would be built somewhere in the Lone Star State. In follow-up tweets, he said that participation in the project would be open to both private companies and teams of students. A California-based group has already begun building models of the life-sized pods in which commuters would travel.

Reactions to Musk’s proposal among scientists and engineers vary from wild enthusiasm to head-shaking disbelief. Michael Anderson, a professor at UC Berkeley, estimates that building a vacuum-powered system from LA to San Francisco would cost in excess of $100 billion. Other observers worry about ensuring passenger safety, given the speeds at which riders would be traveling.

Because of these concerns, simply finding people willing to entrust their lives to the Hyperloop may be the biggest hurdle Musk’s project faces. But human beings possess a remarkable ability to adapt to new ideas and inventions. What seems preposterous one day is commonplace the next, as anyone who remembers a time without the internet can attest. The day may soon come when commuters forego their automobiles for a chance to be vacuumed off to their destinations.


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