SF-LA in a half hour via Hyperloop? Still at least 7 years away

In a conference call following his proof-of-concept unveiling, Elon Musk fleshes out a Hyperloop timeline and takes a shot at high-speed rail.

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
3 min read
The Hyperloop passenger capsule depicted here shows what the vehicle might look like with doors open at the station. SpaceX

When pressed for a definitive timeline, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said Monday that the proposed initial Hyperloop system -- one that would take passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 30 minutes -- can likely come to fruition in 7 to 10 years.

But we have a long way to go. The first step is a demonstration prototype, and Musk is adamant in expressing that he does not want to make the journey to 800 mph electromagnetic travel on his own. "If someone else goes and does a demo, that would be really awesome and I hope someone does," Musk said.

If no one steps up, Musk said that he would make a demo, but that it would probably take upwards of three or four years given his commitments to SpaceX and Tesla. If he focused solely on the Hyperloop, it could take him only one to two years, he added.

Musk also fleshed out more information on the system's cost, quoting the total of the proposed San Francisco to Los Angeles system at roughly $6 billion, or 10 times less than the proposed California High-Speed Rail Project.

"I don't think we should do the high-speed rail thing," Musk said, effortlessly writing off the initiative as a burden on taxpayers with unnecessary construction, permitting, and legal costs. "I think it's probably going to be north of $100 billion, and then it's going to be less desirable to take than a plane."

The issue with high-speed rail, Musk noted, is that it must maintain a level path and that would involve building immense structures to support the weight of the train at the point of elevation changes, on top of the enormous costs to lease the land for construction. The Hyperloop, on the other hand, could rest simply on pylons because the passenger crafts are designed to be extremely lightweight. "Trains are amazingly heavy, and this is designed more like an aircraft," he said.

Hyperloop: Crazy or crazy awesome? (pictures)

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Additionally, "by building it on pylons, you can almost entirely avoid the need to buy land by following alongside the mostly very straight California Interstate 5 highway, with only minor deviations when the highway makes a sharp turn," Musk writes in his lengthy and sometimes mind-boggling 57-page proof-of-concept.

However, Musk's price breakdown for the Hyperloop does not factor in any of the costs that have ballooned the U.S.'s high-speed rail initiative and would still likely, in one form or another, factor into the building of a Hyperloop system, notes Andy Kuntz, the president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.

"Saying $6 billion is misleading," said Kuntz, who was highly skeptical that the Hyperloop's safety, implementation, and energy efficiency are ironed out to the point where its system can even be compared with that of high-speed rail. "The California system, if they were building it in heaven, would probably be $10 billion," he added.

But skepticism aside, Kuntz is not short on respect for Musk and his ability to bring vision to reality. "Since he is an entrepreneur and gets stuff built there's a likely chance that this will get further," Kuntz said of the Hyperloop when compared with the numerous other pneumatic-styled transportation methods that have routinely sprouted up over the years.

"He's more likely than anybody else to try and advance it. The question it's going to be is how far is he going to take this?"