Elon Musk has a plan to build a high-speed transit system that would let you go from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes — and which would cost one-tenth as much as California’s current high-speed rail plan.
Musk initially called his “Hyperloop” concept a cross between a “Concorde, a railgun, and an air hockey table.” Then he announced, a few days ago, that he’d publish more detailed Hyperloop plans in August and that he would be seeking feedback.
But you don’t have to wait until August. We now have a pretty good idea what Musk’s plan might look like thanks to an enterprising, self-taught “tinker” named John Gardi.
Gardi’s plan — which he sketched out in Microsoft Paint and posted to Twitter — is basically a pneumatic tube with magnetic accelerators and decelerators. (Illustrator Brent Couchman prettied up Gardi’s sketch, creating the version you see here — click for a full-size version.)
This is a shining example of how independent thinkers can come up with brilliant technological ideas that outstrip the best plans that any government bureaucracy can create.
But without that bureaucracy’s consent, it will never be built.
Here’s Gardi’s plan: You’d climb into a sealed pod along with other passengers and strap yourself in, and then the magnetic accelerator would inject the pod into a compressed column of air moving at 600 miles per hour. The air would propel you — and any other pods in the tube — down the length of California. Thirty minutes later, the system would shunt your pod into a decelerator, which would use magnets to slow your pod down until it reaches the station at the other end, where you’d disembark.
Connecting pipes would be between the northbound and southbound segments, with turbines to pump the air, making the entire system into a “loop” of air moving at extremely high speeds in a continuous circle.
“Your guess is the closest I’ve seen anyone guess so far,” Musk told Gardi via Twitter after he published his sketch.
Musk also gave Gardi an important clue: He is planning for pods that are about 2 meters (6 feet) in diameter.
“The 2-meter diameter pods tells us that #HyperLoop will be an ‘ultralite’ transport system,” Gardi told me via Twitter. “This means the pods, tubes, pylons, and trusses can be made of light, strong materials. This makes elevated construction much easier.
“It will also use less energy, but the biggest plus to lightweight construction is it can be built to withstand earthquakes better.”
We’ll have to wait until Aug. 12 to see the specifics of Musk’s idea, but for now, Gardi’s sketch provides a pretty intriguing view of a truly forward-thinking transportation system.
One thing’s for sure: It beats the current plan from the California “High Speed” Rail Authority (CHSRA).
I put “High Speed” in quotes because, while California’s $69 billion plan is called that, it would actually be one of the slowest high-speed rail systems in the world, as Musk correctly pointed out a few months ago.
According to the CHSRA, the system — when it’s complete in 2029 — will make the S.F.-L.A. trip in about three hours, at speeds “over 200 miles per hour.” But at three hours for a 380-mile trip, that’s an average speed of just 125 miles per hour. Parts of it, such as the northernmost segment from San Francisco to San Jose, will go only slightly faster than the existing commuter rail system.
[Disclosure: I'm no fan of the California plan. In addition to its high cost and low speed, plans call for a giant, concrete, elevated structure that runs through one of the most densely populated parts of the state, the San Francisco Peninsula and Silicon Valley -- and it would loom over my backyard. So yes, I have a personal stake in this.]
By comparison, the French TGV train system has segments with average speeds over 175 miles per hour, and its maximum speed has hit as much as 350 mph. (France started construction on the TGV in the 1970s.) A Chinese bullet train regularly averages 186 mph, making the 630-mile trip from Wuhan to Guangzhou in under four hours.
I’d like to think that someday I’ll be able to ride the Hyperloop for a short day trip to Los Angeles. But the practical side of my brain is extremely skeptical. No government is set up to embrace innovation at Musk’s speed (witness all the legal trouble Tesla is having just finding a place to sell its electric cars).
It’s doubtless that Gardi’s plan doesn’t take a host of factors into account, such as making sure that the tubes don’t leak air and figuring out how to make them safe in case something goes wrong.
And then there’s the issue of securing the right-of-way to install these pneumatic tubes. Even with lightweight construction, you still may not want a 2-meter pipe containing pressurized air and pods moving at 600 mph running through your backyard. (I’d prefer that to big concrete overpasses, but that’s just me.) That means you’d still need to secure the right-of-way, deal with political issues, ensure that there is mitigation for sound and safety issues, and so forth.
One of the reasons the proposed bullet trains will be so slow is that they make a lot of stops, which lowers the average speed for the full journey. The Hyperloop, by contrast, has just two, speeding it up and simplifying the plan. Reality is likely to be a lot more complicated.
So building the Hyperloop for just $6.9 billion seems like a pipe dream.
But as pipe dreams go, it’s a pretty good one. If the idea does nothing more than pressure the California government to rethink its basic assumptions, it will be successful. Why settle for 200 mph when you could go 600 mph?
We need more visionaries like Musk and Gardi who are willing to think about the big picture, and tackle tough problems with audacious imagination.
I can’t wait to see how they continue to develop this idea.