A few weeks ago, I wrote about Elon Musk’s BFG programme to transport people across the world using rockets. But transporting people quickly between continents is not all Musk is interested in. He also has a plan to revolutionise the way people travel between cities.

You’d think that with the rapid pace of technological advancements, we would have a solution to traffic jams by now. Science fiction tells us the solution is flying cars zipping across the city skyline. However the real solution might actually be underground.

Musk's solution is called Hyperloop, and he claims it will be faster than trains, safer than automobiles and less damaging to the environment than any of the existing transportation systems out there. They say when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But Hyperloop is a serious proposition.

First introduced by Musk in the form of a white paper in 2013, it was envisioned that a Hyperloop ride from Los Angeles to San Francisco would take only 30 minutes instead of the usual six hours it would normally take by car.

In his original version, Musk describes a system consisting of two massive tubes extending from Los Angeles to San Francisco through which pods carrying passengers would travel at a blazing speed of up to 1,126km per hour. The speed is achieved through the use of magnetic accelerators placed along the length of the tube which propels the pods forward through a cushion of air.

Many states in the USA and many countries around the world have expressed interest in Hyperloop. Colorado is seriously looking at being the first state to have Hyperloop. Down South, Mexico is looking at connecting Mexico City with Guadalajara via Hyperloop. Other countries with serious plans for Hyperloop include Czech Republic, France, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Slovakia, Sweden and United Arab Emirates.


Musk claims the Hyperloop will be faster than trains, safer than automobiles and less damaging to the environment than any of the existing transportation systems out there.

THE KEY PLAYERS

The interesting thing is at the time he introduced Hyperloop, Musk wasn’t planning on doing it himself. Rather, he was just proposing something that others could take up. Two companies were indeed formed to build the Hyperloop system. One was called Hyperloop One (now called Virgin Hyperloop One after Richard Branson invested into it) and the other is Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.

Virgin Hyperloop One has gained a lot of attention because of Branson's involvement and the news that Colorado Department of Transport has partnered with the company to look into constructing a Hyperloop linking the Denver International Airport to nearby cities such as Vail and Pueblo.

“With Virgin Hyperloop One, passengers and cargo will be loaded into a pod, and accelerated gradually via electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube. The pod quickly lifts above the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds for long distances due to ultra-low aerodynamic drag. We're incredibly excited about the technology behind Virgin Hyperloop One and the way it could transform passengers’ lives,” wrote Branson in a blog posting announcing his investment in the company.

Musk, who did not originally intend to be involved, has decided he wants to be part of the action as well. He has claimed that he has a verbal agreement from the US government to build a Hyperloop between New York and Washington DC. He also claims the trip would take only about 30 minutes.

Hyperloop could be built above or below ground. Musk is looking at the latter option through his company, the cheekily-named Boring Company. That company was not originally set up for Hyperloop. Rather it was intended to build a vast network of tunnels beneath major cities like Los Angeles where cars can be transported across town on an “electric skate” at speeds of 201.17 km per hour. Once they reached their destinations, they would be brought up above ground via elevators and driven on the roads again.

No congestion and fast speeds. The urban traffic jam problem would be resolved. That’s the idea anyway. Now Musk wants to include even faster, inter-city travel into Boring Company’s portfolio.

In July, the company announced: "At the Boring Company, we plan to build low-cost, fast-to-dig tunnels that will house new high-speed transportation systems. Most will be standard pressurised tunnels with electric skates going 201.17 km per hour. For long-distance routes in straight lines, such as NY to DC, it will make sense to use pressurised pods in a depressurised tunnel to allow speeds of up to approximately 965.61 km per hour (AKA Hyperloop).”


Musk wants to include even faster, inter-city travel into Boring Company’s portfolio.

CHALLENGES

Hyperloop technology is still very much a work-in-progress but Nasa has looked at the Hyperloop concept and concluded that estimates of energy consumption, passenger throughput and mission analyses all support Hyperloop as a faster and cheaper alternative to short-haul flights of 402 to 804 km.

Meanwhile, the US Department of Transportation’s feasibility assessment concluded that Hyperloop routes could be up to six times more energy efficient than air travel on short routes, and over three times faster than the world's fastest high-speed rail system.

Virgin Hyperloop One did a small-scale test of the technology earlier this year but the pod didn’t travel at top speed (only 305 kph instead of the promised 965 kph) so you could say that the technology is still unproven. But it seems like it’s just a matter of time before they do get the technology right.

A bigger challenge would be cost. Rob Lloyd, the CEO of Virgin Hyperloop One, has said that costs would only be two-thirds as high as high-speed rail. He gamely projected that a trip between two cities 60 kilometres apart could cost as little as US$5 (RM21.15). That does seem too good to be true.

Many experts have pointed out that building any mass transportation system, and especially one that is underground, would be prohibitive costly and that it can’t be done without government subsidy.

That shouldn’t be a problem for someone like Musk though. The Los Angeles Times has estimated that collectively, Musk’s electric car, solar power and space companies have garnered US$5 billion in government funding. There’s no reason he can’t get more for Hyperloop. And if the technology proves to be viable, the whole world would be better off for it.

Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. Reach him at oonyeoh@gmail.com

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