One year later, Hyperloop remains a fantasy

Elon Musk's tube transport concept unveiled a year ago remains just that: a concept. It also proves that even when the Internet falls in love, radical ideas rarely exit the realm of fiction.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
7 min read

Hoopla over Elon Musk's Hyperloop
Tesla Motors/Space X

Technologist-turned-industrialist Elon Musk mused about the Hyperloop long before he officially introduced the world to the prospect of a 760-mile-per-hour tube transport system that would speed passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 35 minutes.

"What you want is something that never crashes, that's at least twice as fast as a plane, that's solar powered and that leaves right when you arrive, so there is no waiting for a specific departure time," Musk told Businessweek in September 2012.

Musk waited until August 12, 2013, to post a 57-page proof-of-concept that catapulted the idea into our collective consciousness and reinforced his image as Silicon Valley's big thinker. The proposal was outlandish and downright cool enough to get everyone listening: what if human beings boarded not trains or planes, but a near-supersonic pod that shot through a tube dozens of feet above the ground like something Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke dreamt up for the world of the future. It would be solar powered, leave every 30 seconds, and remove the need to travel any other way unless you were going coast-to-coast or out of the country.

Hyperloop: Crazy or crazy awesome? (pictures)

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Musk pulled a group of engineers from Tesla Motors, his electric car company, and SpaceX, his rocket-making orbital transport outfit, and assigned them to work on the "alpha" design, as they called it. Think of it as a brainstorming session -- similar to a late-night college cram fest -- whose goal was not to pass a test but to embarrass the state of California into action.

"Because the $60 billion bullet train they're proposing in California would be the slowest bullet train in the world at the highest cost per mile. They're going for records in all the wrong ways," Musk added back in 2012. When he introduced the Hyperloop concept, Musk said it could be done within the decade for as little as $6 billion.

Not totally tubular yet

One year later, California's high-speed rail project is overcoming funding roadblocks and beginning construction. On the other hand, the Hyperloop remains a pipe dream. Despite many attempts by Internet communities and crowdfunding platforms to turn it into a reality, the idea remains in the realm of sci-fi concept.

Tesla and SpaceX representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Andy Kunz, CEO and president of the US High Speed Rail Association and an admitted fan of Musk's entrepreneurial track record, was an early critic of the Hyperloop. But that was largely because of the prospective expense of a project with unproved feasibility. Still, he remains a supporter of Musk's approach toward innovation.

"The interesting thing about Musk is, in space tech, he took an existing tech and privatized it," said Kunz.

An artist rendition of California's in-progress high-speed rail project that would ferry passengers across the state at speeds up to 220 mph. California High Speed Rail Authority

"The real innovation [with SpaceX] was not the tech, the innovation was doing that business as a private enterprise," he added. With Tesla, too, Musk's innovation was in taking existing prototype technology to build an electric vehicle with unprecedented range and mass-producing it as a luxury sports car.

"Where Musk differed on high-speed rail was that he didn't take an existing tech and try and privatize it," Kunz added. Indeed, Musk proposed the US leapfrog existing tech like maglev trains now being popularized in China and Japan.

Musk did however state that he would not only be tied up with Tesla and SpaceX to help make it happen, and that the Hyperloop would require extensive modeling and a upsurge in collaboration around the country to help it take off. The only problem: the Hyperloop idea is not even on the ground yet.

How does the Hyperloop work, again?

Musk envisioned the Hyperloop as a fifth mode of transportation that would far surpass planes, boats, trains, and cars. Passengers would travel in pressurized pods -- similar to airplane cabins -- through tubes elevated off the ground with pylons. The tubes would be kept at one thousandth the normal atmospheric pressure at sea level, or one sixth that of Mars' atmosphere in Musk parlance, to cut air resistance while avoiding the engineering complexity of maintaining a complete vacuum.

An rendition of a Hyerloop pod and its tubed track with solar arrays attached on top. Tesla Motors/Space X

Propulsion would be generated not from electromagnetic suspension, as maglev trains do, nor a pneumatic tube solution, as viewers of the animated comedy Futurama might recognize. Maglev levitation keeps trains rigidly on track, yet can't achieve the speed required of the Hyperloop without a complete vacuum, which Musk ruled out, while pneumatics require way too large of a fan to generate enough power to overcome friction at a reasonable speed.

A schematic Musk and his team worked out for the electric compressor of the Hyperloop pods. Tesla Motors/Space X

Rather, the Hyperloop would work similar to an air hockey table. But instead of floating on a small cushion of air, the pods are propelled along that cushion using solar-powered electromagnetic pulses -- the very same forces generated from the linear induction motor that shares its core premise with the standard induction motor propelling a Tesla electric vehicle.

After the initial shove, an electric compressor at the front of the pod would pull in the small amount of present air and push it out the back and through holes in the sides. Positioning two different tubes, one north and one south, creates the titular loop, but also aides in the transfer of energy as air from one pod flows from its end and into the electric compressor of the pod behind it. The analogy Musk uses: the plunger of a syringe with a hole punched in it.

Sounds complicated? That's because it is. Though the rough sketch Musk and his team of engineers provided is only a starting point, it suggests how engineers might realistically pull off an idea as radical as the Hyperloop.

The remaining hurdles are still many: Can they figure out how to overcome the drag problem even in such a thin atmospheric environment? What is the potential of supersonic air surrounding the pods? Is there a possibility that the entire ride -- which would not be a straight line -- could feel like a roller coaster and make passengers very ill very fast? What is the capacity -- and other logistical problems -- of 28-person pods that don't currently leave room for a bathroom?

Who is (still) trying to make it happen?

Interest in the Hyperloop was immediate. Following the release of the design proposal last August, Web communities like Reddit swarmed to the idea and began forming state-specific coalitions, with websites like cahyperloop.org and coloradohyperloop.com sprouting up in the following weeks. Yet as time went on, the activity on these online communities has tapered off.

The most promising of the bunch was JumpStartFund, a collaboration platform for entrepreneurs to help both crowdfund and enlist early employees of a startup that has yet to fully materialize. The creator of the platform, CEO Dirk Ahlborn, decided to make the Hyperloop a flagship project in late August of last year, just three weeks after Musk introduced the idea. After a swell of positive response and a conversation with SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, Ahlborn decided that it could be spun off into its own company while maintaining the crowdsourcing and collaborative spirit of the project.

Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

The startup roped in Marco Villa, formerly of SpaceX as its director of mission operations in charge of the Dragon spacecraft project, and Patricia Galloway, a national infrastructure expert who was the vice chair of the US National Science Board from 2008 to 2010.

The goal was to not only continue to foster the ability for the community to work on the project at their discretion but to also officially recruit talented engineers and transportation experts in exchange for company equity. "We want to find a way to give everyone the ability to be a part of this project," Ahlborn told CNET at the time.

In October of last year, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies was born. The company publicized a partnership with Ansys, a software simulation company used by the world's top industrial and product engineering firms, including SpaceX. It also teamed up with UCLA's Architecture and Urban Design graduate program, called SupraStudio, to help better develop the network of paired cities that could be used as initial Hyperloop candidates.

However, news from JumpStartFund has been sparse of late, with little but "development milestones" posted to the company's Hyperloop page on the platform. In March, a revised white paper was released, but not made publicly available.

JumpStartFund declined to comment on the progress of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, though its latest update says the project is still underway and onto the prototype-building stage, a design for which was completed in early June.

"We are not looking for funding at this time," Ahlborn stressed in a statement given to CNET, clarifying wording on the JumpStartFund that claimed the project was seeking funding for its prototype. "We had some legal issues that delayed the project, but are now up and working with an amazing team to answer the questions: how we are going to do this and how much it will cost."

The legal issues, Ahlborn said, arise from the intricacies of planning an unprecedented infrastructure project that would bump up against numerous environmental and regulatory roadblocks. The company, still the most hopeful venture to rally around the Hyperloop a viable project, has an announcement related to its progress on the way.

From the outset, Musk said that the Hyperloop idea may need up to 10 years to materialize -- even if the US's best minds threw themselves at the prospect of 700-mph tube transportation. Yet perhaps in his effort to flick at a vision of the future -- an approach that served him well in developing the most important electric car and rocket companies in the world -- even a technologist as accomplished as Musk looked too far into the future.

"Building regular off-the-shelf high-speed rail is a big deal," Kunz said, comparing the progress of California's rail project and the Hyperloop. "Imagine building a tech that hasn't even been invented yet?"

Update at 9:30 a.m. PT: A previous version of this article mistakenly identified the Tesla motor as a linear induction motor. That is incorrect; the Tesla Model S and Roadster carry standard induction motors.

Update at 11:25 a.m. PT: Added comment from JumpStartFund CEO Dirk Ahlborn.