Hyper-Excitement About a Hyperloop
Hyperloop transport is 'Open Source' reveals Elon Musk!
I read with great interest about Elon Musk's proposal for a new bullet train. What makes it so intriguing is that it's not a new design or paradigm. Nor is it technically a new "mode" of transportation. But like many engineering marvels, instead of aiming for a 'paradigm shift', this again illustrates that some of the most enduring and ingenious inventions stand the test of time because they peeled away a layer of an existing technology or approached a problem from a somewhat new direction. Musk's idea for a pneumatic tube train is just that. This train sends specially designed floating "capsules" through continuous tube maintained at partial vacuum. The capsule will reach maximum speed of 1220km/h while maintaining good aerodynamic efficiency and passenger comfort. The "capsule" can travel at high speeds without crossing the sound barrier leading to reduced noise pollution. Amazing!
Any of us who has ever worked in a late 19th or early 20th century office building knows that one of its many wonderful aspects - along with the ample natural light and beautiful brass fixtures - is the pneumatic tube system. The solution to move vast amounts of mail throughout a large office building is an elegantly simple one. Compressed air in tubes force along streamlined capsules filled with letters, postcards, and small packages to and from the mailroom. Another idea that comes to mind is the typical Roman aquaduct found in many parts of Europe. This uses nothing more than gravity to bring fresh, mountain spring water to congested cities that badly need it. A pneumatic tube's design is such that even though the scale might change, the underlying technology and benefits have been with us for a while. There is no change of paradigm needed.
My fascination with the Hyperloop is the sweet spot that Musk has devised for his plan to work. The simple act of doing so already supersedes what most government agencies would never think of doing: asking under what circumstances a project would be well received and would turn a profit. My hunch is that Musk's conclusions would have been very different even 15 years ago, when airports were much quicker and convenient propositions than they are now. With airport check-through procedures making short-haul flights cost-prohibitive and far too long, a new generation (and especially a new American generation) is rediscovering the benefits of train travel. And then the extra benefit that the Hyperloop can presumably take its passengers from one urban center to another. So even the prospect of a supersonic flight, a 50-year-old technology that's never worked well for short haul scenarios, would remain unattractive because airports are seldom close to urban cores.
Actually, Musk's argument for the economics of 500-kilometer journeys can, I think, be persuasively made for ones that are three or four times that length. That is to say, the Hyperloop can make super-fast travel doable for the transatlantic routes that never seemed to turn a profit for Concorde. I can hear the naysayers now: A transatlantic route? Who's going to install the tubes at the bottom of the ocean? And yet I say, it's time for us to rally around the Hyperloop not because any of us will ever travel on it someday. But we should support it because Musk's can-do spirit of innovation should, I believe, be infectious.