Hyperloop tube travel may be more than a pipe dream

Business travelers may welcome high-speed, city-to-city transport

Instead of boarding a plane for your next business trip, how about making the journey inside a solar-powered, car-size aluminum pod shooting through a steel tube?

Would you do it if that pod could take you from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes?

Elon Musk
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX. (Photo: Reuters)

That's the vision of Elon Musk, CEO of electric car maker Tesla Motors and SpaceX, which has run two successful missions contracted by NASA to deliver scientific experiments and supplies to astronauts on the International Space Station.

If almost anyone else other than Musk started talking about high-speed transportation inside a large tube, few people would pay attention. But Musk is an entrepreneur who has made big things happen -- he is, for example, the head of the first company to build and operate what is essentially a commercial space taxi for NASA.

And now Musk is behind the idea of what he's calling Hyperloop, an elevated, city-to-city transportation system that would travel at speeds of more than 700 mph.

An artist's rendering of Elon Musk's vision of a high-speed transportation system featuring capsules shot through tubes. (Image: Tesla Motors)

"Short of figuring out real teleportation, which would of course be awesome (someone please do this), the only option for super fast travel is to build a tube," Musk wrote in a post on the SpaceX website. "Hyperloop is a new mode of transport... both fast and inexpensive for people and goods. Hyperloop is also unique in that it is an open design concept, similar to Linux. Feedback is desired from the community that can help advance the Hyperloop design and bring it from concept to reality."

As envisioned by Musk, a Hyperloop transportation system would consist of a low-pressure tube that would accommodate capsules capable of holding up to 28 passengers. The capsules, or pods, would shoot through the tubes at either low or high speeds on "a cushion of air" created by pressurized air and aerodynamic lift. Acceleration would be created by a powerful fan at the front of the pod sucking air in the front and expelling it at the rear.

Passengers would be able to enter and exit the capsules at either end or from various branches along the tube.

Musk's initial plan calls for a system that runs from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Capsules would depart as often as every 30 seconds, and the system would be capable of transporting 7.4 million people each way annually.

So is there any real chance of one day traveling from L.A. to San Francisco, or from Boston to Washington, inside a pod shooting through a tube?

Why not? say some industry analysts say.

"I like it. It's bold, yet workable," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group. "There will be a lot of special interests who will work to snuff it out, but it's a good idea and deserves more exploration. It could make business travel more affordable, and also allow people to live farther away from their jobs."

He added that it could be a boon for frequent business travelers, because it would enable them to get them from city to city quickly, without a trip to the airport.

"The other consideration is that much of the energy used could be harvested from solar cells lining the outside of the tube," said Olds. "The science behind it is sound. Assuming it can be built, it has the potential to move more people faster than any alternative -- and at a lower cost as well."

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at ZK Research, said if such a project were to get beyond the funding and building stage, it would offer some strong positives.

Calling Musk "futuristic," he said, "I think a faster mode of transport would be well received."

"Frankly, I think it would great," Kerravala added. "Anything to save on travel time would be welcomed. I think initially there would be some concern, but once people started using it, I'm sure it would be mainstream."

This article, "Hyperloop Tube Travel May Be More Than a Pipe Dream," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Does traveling in a pod at 700 mph seem too futuristic to you? It could be reality with the Hyperloop transportation system, which would transport people from LA to San Francisco in just half an hour.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter, at @sgaudin, and on Google+, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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