Welcome back to “We Live in the Future,” in which we will tackle subjects of new and crazy ways the science of transportation is moving forward in our daily lives. These will skew towards longreads, so consider yourself warned: here there be science (and some snark).
Eccentric billionaire Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is at it again. Not content with just putting in the most valiant effort to date to resuscitate the electric car, he has introduced his new concept for high-speed transport: the Hyperloop, which is basically the coolest term anyone’s used to describe a mode of transportation since “stealth bomber”.
Pods Moving People
So the basic idea for the Hyperloop is you get a series of pods, spaced out appropriately, and you shoot the pods from Los Angeles to San Francisco. That drive normally takes five hours or so, and it is legendarily boring, so this space-age-y new proposal that could get you there in a half hour is quite a tempting thought indeed.
The Hyperloop uses various technologies that have been around for quite some time at this point, anywhere from space-age, largely frictionless materials used by SpaceX for their spacecraft to improvements on the magnetic mechanism that launches rollercoasters at amusement parks. Once the pod has been launched, the main problem it has to overcome is that it builds up compressed air in front of it as it moves, making it harder and harder to maintain speed.
Musk’s plan not only takes that air pressure into account, but also puts it to use to solve a different problem. There is a large fan on the front of the pod that takes some of the air and moves it through the cabin and out through a rocket nozzle in the back (described by one scientist as “a highly-engineered fart“), and takes some of the air and pushes it out through skids on the bottom to reduce friction.
But What About All the Friction??
The biggest problem with moving things at incredible speeds is friction, far and away. It’s the reason cars lose efficiency between the ignition of gasoline and the moving of the axles; it’s the reason that an enormous part of space shuttles is actually just fuel to get it out of the atmosphere to the vacuum of space, where there is no friction (nor is it possible to hear people scream). Musk’s Hyperloop plan calls for the pods to float on the track, lifted by the pressure of the air it expels from the front of the pod. The closest analogue in every day life is a puck on an air hockey table. You can get them moving really fast because you’re applying force and the amount of friction to slow them down is less, due to the air jets blowing the puck up.
Maglev trains (“magnetic levitation”) conquer the friction problem by using opposing magnetic fields. The magnet in the train repels the magnet in the track, and the train floats high enough to cut down on friction significantly. These trains are faster than normal, but still nowhere near theoretical-Hyperloop speed, because they are open-air vehicles. Musk’s plan calls for the Hyperloop pods to be in enclosed tubes and the air pressure in the tube proper to be reduced to about 0.1% of Earth’s atmosphere.
So But Okay, Genius, Will It WORK?
That’s the fun part: we have literally no idea. No one’s built a Hyperloop track segment, no one’s built a pod, no one has tightened bolt one on this project. It’s all a white paper that Musk presented for feedback, and to gauge public interest. The guy’s not dumb; he has two college degrees, and one of them is in physics. That doesn’t make him a master of the field, but it definitely makes him more qualified than Joe Q. Citizen. Any scientist will tell you that the proof tends to be in the pudding with things like this. You never know if it is feasible until you actually try to do it, which requires a lot of work beforehand. There will be lots of double-checking of numbers and building of 3D printed models in the near future, I’d expect.
But I think we have reason to be optimistic. California has already planned a high-speed train system which a) wouldn’t be nearly as fast as the Hyperloop, even if the Hyperloop isn’t as fast as it purports to be, b) wouldn’t cover the more remarkable distances and would stay mostly in the Southern California area between Los Angeles and Sacramento, and c) would be roughly 7 times the projected cost of the Hyperloop, and that’s if they build Hyperloop mk II, which is capable of transporting cars.
In the meantime, I’ll be keeping my ear to the ground about this. I’ve made peace with the fact that we won’t have hoverboards by 2015, and all the other myriad ways that Back to the Future II lied to me, but I don’t think high-speed transit is unreasonable. I mean, we built the entire Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways (I literally had no idea it had such an awesome name until I looked it up just now) in 35 years.
Fingers crossed for a high-speed rail between Cincinnati and New York City in our time. Fingers crossed.