Technology

Elon Musk unveils his plans for the Hyperloop

A glimpse at the slope-fronted capsules of the Hyperloop. Image: Tesla Motors

A glimpse at the slope-fronted capsules of the Hyperloop. Image: Tesla Motors

In his TED2013 talk, Robert Gordon points out that in 1900, human beings could only travel as fast as a horse could pull them in a buggy, but by 1960, we could travel at 80% of the speed of sound, thanks to the Boeing 707. Since 1960, though, the needle on how fast we can travel hasn’t moved at all. But this could change.

Elon Musk: The mind behind Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity ... Elon Musk: The mind behind Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity ... Just now, fellow TED2013 speaker Elon Musk unveiled more details of his much-discussed blue-sky idea: the Hyperloop, a system to carry passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco, 382 miles or 615 km, in about 35 minutes — less than half the time it takes to fly between the two cities. While early rumors suggested the Hyperloop might connect Los Angeles and New York, and even New York and China, the alpha plans of the highly speculative system are focused in California, as a provocative response to a $68.4 billion high-speed rail plan to connect the state’s two largest coastal cities. As specced, that high-speed rail system would be only slightly cheaper than flying — and would take about twice as long, at 2 hours, 40 minutes. (Of course, right now, the train between Oakland and Los Angeles takes a cool 12 hours, 10 minutes.)

Musk’s Hyperloop is an aboveground system — long tubes set atop pylons — that could run alongside highways. The system would run capsules that hold 28 passengers each through the tubes, departing every two minutes. These capsules contain compressor fans in their nose that form a cushion of air underneath them.

“Wheels don’t work very well at [700 mph], but a cushion of air does,” the plans read. “Air bearings, which use the same basic principle as an air hockey table, have been demonstrated to work at speeds of Mach 1.1 with very low friction.”

A look at what the Hyperloop's above-ground tubes will look like. Image: Tesla Motors.

A look at what the Hyperloop’s above-ground tubes will look like. Image: Tesla Motors.

Building the Hyperloop would cost about $6 billion — a fraction of the proposed high-speed rail system. A ticket on the Hyperloop would cost $20, far trumping both airfare and the price of gas for the same car trip.

“It’s like getting a ride on Space Mountain at Disneyland,” Musk tells Bloomberg Businessweek. “Unlike an airplane, it is not subject to turbulence, so there are no sudden movements. It would feel supersmooth.”

Musk, who says that publishing the plans required an “all nighter” from his team, is the mind behind Paypal, the all-electric car Tesla and SpaceX, the first commercial company offering travel to space. And he’s making it very clear: He’s not going to be the one starting or running Hyperloop. “I’m just putting this out there as an open-source design,” he tells Businessweek.

That said, Musk has mentioned the Hyperloop — the inspiration for which we can only hope was taken from this absurdist piece on the Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel – several times over the past year. In May, he teased that the Hyperloop would be a “cross between the Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table.” He wrote on Twitter soon after that he would unveil the full plans today.

Chris Anderson interviews Elon Musk at TED2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Chris Anderson interviews Elon Musk at TED2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

On the TED2013 stage, Musk sat down for an interview with our own Chris Anderson, who marveled at the wide variety of ventures that Musk has embarked on.

“My theory is that you have an ability to think at a system level that pulls together design, technology and business … and [to] feel so damn confident in that clicked-together package that you take crazy risks. You bet your fortune on it,” said Anderson. “Could we have some of that secret sauce? Can we put it into our education system?”

Read the full plans for the Hyperloop here »