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A closer look at Elon Musk’s Hyperloop transportation system

A year ago, the somewhat eccentric kajillionaire, Elon Musk, revealed that he’s been cooking up a new transportation system that would carry passengers at roughly 700mph – almost the speed of sound. Dubbed the Hyperloop, Musk said the system would somehow only cost $6 billion (£4 billion). Since then, the Hyperloop has been shrouded in mystery, until yesterday.

Musk previously said that the Hyperloop is immune to weather, doesn’t need rails, can’t crash, and isn’t based on an evacuation tunnel. Musk also claims that the transportation system runs entirely off solar panels, and stores the energy within itself without needing batteries. This, of course, led us all to believe that Musk had figured out how to create Futurama’s prism railroad. Obviously the best place to reveal a cheap future transportation system, Musk took to Twitter yesterday to divulge the details.

The Hyperloop involves an elevated system wherein aluminium pods on skis speed along through the inside of steel tubes. The skis are air bearings, and pump air out of the bottom, which moves the pods along. Basically, it’s the same way air hockey tables work.

The steel tubes would be mounted around on columns, around 50 to 100 feet apart from one another, and would loop back together at the end of the system. The loop is to keep the airflow inside the tunnels constantly churning. To move the pods at those crazy speeds, the tunnels would employ a linear electric motor. The pods’ skis would have a thin row of magnets, and the motor would push the pods along electromagnetically.

So, it’s essentially an electromagnetic air hockey table where the puck also generates air. Musk envisions the elevated tunnels as looking like shotgun barrels. A Hyperloop bonus: Since it is elevated, it wouldn’t interfere much with land and infrastructure.

The pods will travel at speeds of up to 800mph, which is alarmingly fast. Musk states that each pod will have an emergency brake, and must be stationed around five miles from another pod in order to remain at a safe distance. So, the Hyperloop can fit around 70 pods between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and one would depart every 30 seconds – definitely a boon for Americans who miss their train that runs on an hourly schedule by a couple of minutes every morning.

You might assume that a vehicle traveling that fast would surely cause a number of us to carry barf bags as part of our morning commute, but Musk states that the pods would have less lateral acceleration, and thus be a more pleasant ride than, for example, a traditional subway. In order to slow down, another linear electric motor would absorb the kinetic energy, which in turn is stored in battery pack.

Musk estimates the Hyperloop to cost around $6 billion (£4 billion) for people-only transport, or $10 billion (£6.5 billion) for a version people can drive their cars right into and bring their vehicle along in the pod. Musk also notes that tickets would be much cheaper than plane tickets, but doesn’t provide a figure. The Hyperloop is designed to link cities around 1,000 miles apart, but no farther, as a greater distance would significantly raise costs.

The Hyperloop won’t remedy all of America’s morning commute troubles, though. If it does ever come to exist, it’s meant more as an airplane replacement for short trips between major cities. The random small town a person calls home that is two hours away from their place of work likely won’t ever receive a Hyperloop system. However, if you live in New York and need to travel to Boston a couple of times a month on business, the Hyperloop would be less hassle than a plane, and faster than that four hour plus train journey.

To read up on the Hyperloop in great detail, check out Musk’s outline (PDF).