There has got to be a better way. These were the thoughts of Elon Musk as he sat in LA traffic, frustrated that he was going to be late for his next appointment. As one of the leading innovators of our time, Elon decided to publish a 58-page white paper on the SpaceX website in August 2013 on what he hopes will become the 5th mode of transportation. As Uber, Google and others look to the Internet of Things and drones as remedies for traffic congestion, Mr. Musk believes very high-speed capsules may be the solution.
What is different this time is Elon turned to the engineering community via an open source competition to develop the technology for capsule transportation. In January 2017, SpaceX held a design competition bringing teams from universities across the world to show off their “Hyperloop.” A team from Munich, Germany had the fastest pod, reaching 90 km/h or about 56 mph on a short test track. A team from the Netherlands had the best overall score for its design and engineers from MIT placed third. The final phase of the competition will occur in late August 2017 at the SpaceX Hyperloop track in Hawthorne, CA.
Who Is Ahead?
Mr. Musk is not the only one who believes there is a need for Hyperloop transportation. The venture capital world has provided over $260 million to two companies active in Hyperloop technology. In 2014, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), based out of Culver City, CA, initiated design on a full-scale passenger capsule, which they hope to debut in 2018. The capsule is expected to be nine feet in diameter, measuring 100 feet long and weighing 20 tons. It could hold 28-40 passengers and travel at up to 760 mph.
A second firm, Hyperloop One, is based in Los Angeles and has been developing a test track called DevLoop in Nevada. Hyperloop One successfully tested their propulsion system in May 2016. Further tests are scheduled but have not yet been completed. The company has also signed an agreement with the UAE to explore the development of a Dubai to Abu Dhabi route. Hyperloop One feels the opportunities for the technology is endless, and they have proposed several possible routes for Hyperloop projects across the U.S. that would crush current delivery speeds via auto and flight.
The efficient transportation of people is only half the draw that investors see in the Hyperloop. The ability to ship large quantities of cargo, along with passengers, at these rapid speeds is considered equally disruptive. With the Hyperloop, goods could be transported timelier from ports, factories, and to and from other distribution hubs. Additionally, the reductions of trucks from our highways will reduce traffic congestion, making roads safer. The industry is studying the possibility of aboveground, underground, and underwater Hyperloop projects, which could redefine the way cargo is delivered.
While Elon Musk’s vision of capsules transporting humans at rapid speeds from Los Angeles to San Francisco is still years away, the technology is gaining acceptance. One big reason is the cost. The State of California recently funded a high-speed rail line from LA to San Francisco at a projected cost of $64 billion. It is estimated that the same Hyperloop line could be developed at a cost of $6 billion with a travel time 130 minutes shorter than the “high-speed” train. Imagine the possibilities. It may soon be commonplace for someone going from their home in LA to their job in San Francisco in just 30 minutes.