It was with bated breath and more than a fair share of apprehension, not too mention ridicule, that the Internet awaited the details of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop plans.
So far, Musk has revealed the first several pages of the design. In them, he discloses initial renderings of the aluminum pods that will whisk passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in under 45 minutes. More crucially, he elaborates on how Hyperloop will work; below are some of the just-unveiled specs (see more over at Co.Exist):
• Steel tubes will be mounted on columns that would run parallel to I-5 freeway, the strip of highway that links L.A. to San Francisco.
• The pods will travel inside steel tubes at speeds pushing 800 mph and will be separated by five-mile gaps of space.
• An “advanced linear motor system” would power each of the pods.
• Travel will be very comfortable and “smooth,” and passengers would feel less lateral acceleration–which prompts feelings of motion sickness–than in a subway car.
• Hyperloop would cost upwards of $10 billion for a system that integrated different-sized pods, those for people and for cars.
Sounds like Musk has the whole thing (sorta) figured out, right? But why, then, did the electric carmaker, rocket builder, and enlightened entrepreneur recently move to distance himself from his own sensationalized project? He said he had no intention of implementing the idea himself, preferring to leave the hard (and potentially fruitless) work to someone else.
Here’s the thing: As far-fetched as Hyperloop may seem, it could be the next in a long line of great infrastructural works that once seemed just as crazed. If it works–and that’s an admittedly huge “if”–it could, in Musk’s own estimation, be the next in modern transport, something to overtake the plane, train, and automobile.
First, a little recap. Musk’s concept consists of a cross-country transportation system of pneumatic tubes capable of
disapparating ferrying riders from far-flung cities hundreds, even thousands of miles apart in under an hour. The project infinitely improves on California’s $70 billion “high-speed” rail project and would cost way, way less. Hyperloop would run off of solar power and be built above ground, eliminating the very pricey enterprise of tunnel-digging. It would be vacuum-sealed and use propulsion technologies that function like “a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table,” as Musk put it.
Aside from that tidbit and precious few others, Musk had been mum as to the exact mechanics of the system. After a few weeks passed, however, he seemed to lose interest himself. In July, he admitted that he made a mistake in ever discussing the project in public and regretted his pledge to reveal his “detailed” plans by mid-August. That is, today.
Leading up to the big reveal, many bloggers pointed out how the concept sounded more or less like it reconstituted freeze-dried futures from the past. They invoked an old paper from the 1910s (though only published in 1972) that outlined a similar plan for a “Very High-Speed Transit System” to link New York to Los Angeles. Others offered up a more contemporary comparison: the Jetsons. (To be honest, I’m all Jetson’ed out by now.) True, the idea is definitely out there, even “extremely speculative” as Musk conceded, but is it really impossible? Did Musk lose his nerve, or is the technology needed to build the system really as fanciful as many have said? Of all people, why would Musk go from hyping Hyperloop as a new paradigm of personal, high-speed transport to effectively shrugging the whole thing off?
We don’t know, but we do know that many of the world’s largest infrastructural projects were deemed fantasies less than a century ago. Through miracles of construction and engineering (plus lots and lots of reinforced concrete), we’ve rebuilt and reconfigured the layout of our cities, shifted coastal lines and geographies, bridged once incommensurable expanses of space, tamed forces of nature, and even recreated Earth in miniature. So it wouldn’t be all that foolish to take Musk half-seriously. History tells us that Hyperloop can be built, in one form or another. When it could happen is almost beside the point.
Head up to the slide show to see 10 of the world’s greatest infrastructural projects.