All Aboard the Subsonic Crazy Train

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Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk recently revealed a few more details about his proposal for the Hyperloop, transit he says could take passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in half an hour. We know it’s not a bullet train. So what the heck is it?

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Musk, an inventor who gained fame for his involvement starting Tesla Motors, PayPal and SpaceX, mentioned the Hyperloop idea last summer in a talk with PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy. He’s called it “a cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table” and suggested the transit would be cheaper and faster than a bullet train.

Musk has said the Hyperloop will be a non-scheduled service that leaves as soon as passengers arrive. He’s also said it’s going to be immune to the weather and won’t crash. He promises to share more information this summer.

Responses have ranged from this is pie-in-the-sky insanity to this could totally happen. A few caveats: The word “train” feels like a misnomer here. Also, I am not a physicist. But Gizmag’s Brian Dodson is, and he just did a thorough job parsing what’s known about the Hyperloop in an impressive attempt to figure out how this mysterious transportation system might actually work.

Dodson rules out two popular theories. One is that the Hyperloop revives the Rand Corporation’s old Very High Speed Transit System idea involving a vacuum tunnel. The other is that this would be a type of Lofstrom or launch loop that accelerates vehicles electromagnetically along a cable system. Kind of like a Maglev train and gondola lift mashup that passes through space.

Instead, Dodson suggested that Musk is proposing subsonic transport. He thinks the Hyperloop will be a pneumatic transport system that consists of a closed tube making loops between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Passengers would ride in capsules within the tube. I imagine this would be similar to those pneumatic tubes at bank drive-throughs.

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Politics and practicality aside, one of the biggest challenges Dodson foresees with a pneumatic transport system like this would be where to put it since it requires tube tracks to be nearly straight. I’m looking forward to hearing more details about the Hyperloop from Musk soon. A prototype would be fun to see in action. Maybe have some barf bags on hand, just in case.

Photo: Blur from an actual train, not the Hyperloop. Yet. Credit: Greg Marshall.