Deblackboxing the Hyperloop

In August 2013, Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, officially unveiled his theoretical plans for a new mode of ground transportation called the Hyperloop. In a 57-page white paper he published on Teslamotors.com, Musk announced his visionary ideas. The Hyperloop is a transportation system that consists of giant vacuum-like tubes that propel capsules at speeds of 700 miles or more per hour. The capsule is suspended in the tube by jets of air released from the bottom of the capsule, creating a frictionless environment similar to how pucks move across an air hockey table. The entire system would work similar to how pneumatic tube mail systems operate, although it is much more complicated than this considering the speed and energy costs.[1]

Musk said he envisioned the Hyperloop as a much faster and less expensive alternative to the newly-approved California High Speed Rail system.  He believes that the Hyperloop could carry passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 35 minutes. According to his calculations, this system could be built between San Francisco and L.A. for around $6 billion, which is less than 10 percent of the proposed cost for the high-speed rail system between the two cities.1

When Musk originally unveiled his white paper in 2013, he didn’t have any immediate intentions to actually build the Hyperloop. However, on January 15, 2015 he announced on Twitter his plans to build a test track, most likely in Texas, so that companies and students can test passenger pod prototypes.[2]

The concept of the “vactrain” is not a new one. According to futuristspeaker.com, Robert Goddard, an American aerospace engineer, created a detailed outline in 1910 of a vacuum-propelled train that could travel between New York and Boston in 12 minutes. The concept has also been used in science fiction throughout the 20th century. There is another design for the vactrain concept that was unveiled by ET3 Global Alliance in 2012. The main difference between the ET3 and the Hyperloop is that the ET3 operates in a complete vacuum environment and can propel pods at much faster speeds. Although our plan is to focus our research on the Hyperloop, we intend to delve deeper into the differences between the two technologies and to ask experts about which they think is more likely to become reality.[3]

This technology is ideal for the CCT 506 group project because it illustrates how important it is to consider the broad socio-technical implications of an emerging technology. As exciting as Elon Musk’s visionary ideas may be, there are many factors beyond the technical feasibility of the technology that will decide whether the Hyperloop becomes a reality. What will the railway industry’s response be to this new competition? If the Hyperloop is built, will passengers even be brave enough to step into the capsule for the first time? What are the long-term implications for the nation’s (and the world’s) transportation infrastructure if an intrepid company moves ahead with this idea? These are just a few questions we will explore when researching the socio-political context of the Hyperloop.

 

[1] Musk, Elon. “Hyperloop Alpha” Aug. 12, 2013 http://www.teslamotors.com/sites/default/files/blog_images/hyperloop-alpha.pdf

[2] Davies, Alex. “With a Hyperloop Test Track, Elon Musk Takes on the Critical Heavy Lifting” Jan. 16, 2015. Wired. http://www.wired.com/2015/01/hyperloop-test-track-elon-musk-takes-critical-heavy-lifting/

[3] Frey, Thomas. “Competing for the World’s Largest Infrastructure Project: Over 100 Million Jobs at Stake” Futurist Speaker. http://www.futuristspeaker.com/2013/10/competing-for-the-world-largest-infrastructure-project-over-100-million-jobs-at-stake/

  1.    http://www.teslamotors.com/sites/default/files/blog_images/hyperloop-alpha.pdf
  2.    http://techland.time.com/2013/08/12/elon-musks-hyperloop-5-things-you-should-know/
  3.    http://www.railwayage.com/index.php/blogs/frank-n-wilner/railroads-beware-technology-is-gaining-on-you.html
  4.    http://www.saferoutestoschools.org/documents/Transportation_History.pdf
  5.    http://www.wired.com/2015/01/hyperloop-test-track-elon-musk-takes-critical-heavy-lifting/
  6.    http://www.businessinsider.com/hyperloop-barf-ride-2013-8
  7.    http://www.futuristspeaker.com/2013/10/competing-for-the-world-largest-infrastructure-project-over-100-million-jobs-at-stake/
  8.    http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1892463,00.html
  9.    http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/12/tech/innovation/hyperloop-fastest-trains/
  10.  http://www.xconomy.com/national/2013/08/16/high-speed-rail-or-hyperloop-lets-try-both-and-reward-the-winner/
  11.  http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2013-08-12/revealed-elon-musk-explains-the-hyperloop
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