Imagine a half-hour commute from your job in New York City to an affordable home in a bucolic town more than 100 miles away.
That’s the vision of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, who’s proposed the Hyperloop, a solar-powered system that floats passenger pods on a cushion of air through elevated tubes at the speed of sound.
It’s no longer a pipe dream. Musk gave no detail when he announced plans in January to build a test track, likely in Texas. Since then, another entrepreneur has secured agreements to break ground early next year on a five-mile stretch in California.
This stretch, near the new town of Quay Valley along Interstate-5 midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, is estimated to cost $100 million and could start carrying passengers in 2018 after extensive safety testing.
“We look at it as a metro system,” says Dirk Ahlborn, head of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies or HTT, which is building the California project. “We envision a network” in the United States and elsewhere, he says, calling trains a “dinosaur industry” and high-speed rail too expensive.
Could the sonic, levitating, zero-emissions Hyperloop—potentially as fast as a plane, cheaper than a train, and usable in any weather—really be the future? Here are five factors that could decide its fate:
1. It’s not just Musk
Musk, co-founder of PayPal and current CEO of electric carmaker Tesla and the rocket-building company SpaceX, outlined his idea in a 58-page white paper in August 2013. He described Hyperloop as a “cross between a Concorde, a railgun and air hockey table” and said it could be the “fifth mode” of transportation—after planes, trains, ships, and cars. (Here’s more on Musk’s idea.)
He got involved, because he disliked California’s proposed high-speed rail, designed to go up to 220 miles per hour and reach San Francisco from Los Angeles in two and a half hours.
Too slow, he wrote, so he suggested an alternative that could make the 400-mile (640-kilometer) trip in about half an hour by zooming nearly 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) per hour.
Yet he said he was too busy to take the project on himself. He invited others to do so, and they did. In 2013, Ahlborn launched JumpStartFund, a crowdfunding and crowdsourcing model. He’s used it to attract experts with day jobs at universities and companies such as Boeing and SpaceX who moonlight on the project in exchange for future profits. The team morphed into HTT, a company that Ahlborn says he’ll take public later this year or early next year.
Another company, Los Angeles-based Hyperloop Technologies, is vying to make fast tubular travel a reality. It’s led by Silicon Valley and Washington heavyweights including Brogan BamBrogan, a key former SpaceX engineer; Jim Messina, the manager of President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign; David Sacks, who worked under Musk at PayPal, and Shervin Pishevar, investor in ridesharing company Uber who prodded Musk to go public with his Hyperloop vision.
“We’re happy about other people working in the field,” Ahlborn says, adding his team was the first to get started. He says, though, it’s a “little annoying” they chose a very similar name and logo.
2. It’s not all new technology
The Hyperloop uses magnets and fans to push aerodynamic aluminum pods through pressurized tubes. The steel tubes are topped with solar panels and carry battery packs to store energy that can be used at night or in cloudy weather.
“It’s guided by an electromagnetic system that we’ve developed,” Ahlborn says. “We’ve licensed technologies to make sure the acceleration and deceleration can be done in a comfortable way.”
Despite some new features, the project uses a lot of existing technology. It’s an updated, large-scale version of the old pneumatic tubes that used air pressure to move messages in banks and other buildings in the mid-20th century.
“We know we can build pylons. We know we can build tubes and create vacuums...We know we can hover,” Ahlborn says. “It’s about making it all work together, and making the economics work, which is the biggest challenge...The magnets are very expensive.”
He says the Hyperloop is different from bullet trains that run on magnetic levitation, or maglev, because its pods or capsules travel inside tubes elevated by pylons that are 17 to 20 feet above ground.
Ahlborn says his team plans to offer freight, economy and first-class pods that travel at varying speeds of up to 200 or 300 miles per hour. “Maybe in one capsule, people would like to feel the speed a bit more and then for the 80-year-old, it’s a little softer and slower.”
3. It might cost less than high-speed rail
Musk estimates a Hyperloop connecting Los Angeles with San Francisco would cost between $6 billion and $10 billion—a fraction of the $60 billion-plus for California’s planned high-speed rail.
HTT says it could build such a stretch in 10 years for about $16 billion. “If this same overall price point were preserved for other city pairings, it could dramatically change the way people live and work in cities,” the company says in its own 76-page white paper, released in December.
Ahlborn says Hyperloop is cheaper than rail, because using pylons that run parallel to existing highways obviates the need for train tracks and reduces land acquisition costs. He says the system can operate regardless of weather or natural disasters.
4. It faces safety, fiscal, and other challenges
Not everyone is convinced the Hyperloop can be built as cheaply or operate as safely as proponents say. Could pylons really withstand earthquakes? Would solar panels generate enough power? Could passengers avoid nausea when pods rapidly take off or slow down? What if they need to use the bathroom? Will pods have them?
The Hyperloop will need to be built on straight stretches to avoid possibly stomach-churning turns or climbs, but over long distances, interstates often include tunnels, curves or inclines.
5. Its biggest stretch may get built outside the U.S.
Ahlborn says traveling in a Hyperloop will be similar to riding the subway or flying in an airplane. He plans to finish the five-mile California stretch in early 2017 and spend at least a year optimizing the system before taking on passengers.
“Unfortunately for us, it’s impossible to test everything out on a small scale,” he says, noting the stretch is too short for a pod to reach sonic speeds. Once it’s done, he says, “we’ll start working on longer distances.” He says developers in Quay Valley want to fund an extension, but nothing’s been decided. To build a long stretch quickly, he sees more potential obstacles in the United States than in other countries.
“We have a lot of inquiries from overseas. There’s just less politics,” he says, citing Singapore and the United Arab Emirates’ Dubai. “We’d like to see it first in the U.S., but the politics, the lawsuits, the right of way issues make it more difficult.”