Whatever happened to Elon Musk’s hyperloop?
It’s hard to believe but this summer marks ten years since the billionaire inventor first unveiled the idea for passenger pods riding like maglev trains inside giant tubes in a near vacuum. So it’s time to see how his vision of this super-fast transportation system is coming along. Spoiler alert: it’s not doing so great.
First off, Musk was not the first person to suggest tube-like trains running in a vacuum. As early as 1799 British inventor George Medhurst came up with the idea, launching his Grand Vacuum Tube Company. Interesting concept but it was never built.
Fast forward to August 2013 when Musk unveils his concept, claiming that for just $6 billion he could build a hyperloop between LA and San Francisco that could cover the distance in about 32 minutes at about 750 mph.
Musk built a scale model, mile-long test track at his SpaceX plant in Hawthorne, CA (since removed) and, to his credit, in effect gave away his idea (well, George Medhurst’s idea) to encourage development.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Company launched Hyperloop One and even built a test track in Nevada where he ran a scale model prototype at 240 mph and conducted the first human test run at 100 mph. But by 2022 the company pivoted, announcing it was dropping development of passenger service and focusing instead on just moving freight. In two rounds of layoffs more than half the staff was let go.
Overseas another company, Hyperloop TT, is raking in millions in contracts to build a system linking Padua and Venice. They’ve also secured deals in Dubai, India and Slovakia but so far there’s been minimal construction. A plan to launch passenger service in Dubai by 2019 was, it seems, just more hyperloop hype.
The one system that Musk’s own Boring Company (get it… they bore tunnels?) has built was a $52 million demonstration project in, of all places, Las Vegas. In 2021 a less than two-mile tunnel connecting both sides of that massive Convention Center was opened, not with 700+ mph pods but with a fleet of Tesla cars driving in a tunnel at 40 mph. And yes, there are sometimes traffic jams in the tunnel… the very thing that Musk conceived his “loop” would avoid.
What are the problems with the hyperloop concept? Many things.
First, maintaining a near vacuum inside hundreds of miles of tubes is a major challenge if not impossible.
Second, given the proposed speeds, there’s a question of passenger comfort in the pods, accelerating at supersonic speeds that would subject riders to 2.4 Gs.
Third, what if there’s a problem mid-journey? How can you evacuate passengers from a tube in a near vacuum?
Proponents say that flying is somewhat similar… sitting in a sealed tube going 300+ mph, albeit in mid-air. We take that journey for granted now, so maybe future generations will think the same of hyperloop?
Time, and a lot of expensive innovation and engineering, will answer that question.