The Fuse

Elon Musk’s Hyperloop: Hype Machine, or the Future of Transportation?  

by R. Kress | June 19, 2015

The SpaceX Hyperloop took a new step toward becoming a reality this week. The company’s founder, Elon Musk, announced that he’s launching an open-source competition for designers to create uber-fast transportation pods. Come spring of 2016, Musk plans to pit the top competitors against one other on a mile-long test track that he will construct near the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Musk first described the Hyperloop in 2013 as a network of pneumatic tubes through which human-sized pods could speed at up to 760 miles per hour. The original goal was to cut transit time between San Francisco and Los Angeles to 35 minutes at a cost of $20 each direction. At that time, he cautioned that he would not be able to develop the concept himself, as the enigmatic multi-industrialist was already over-booked with his work as CEO of Tesla Motors and Space-X. But with growing interest from investors in recent years, Musk has found a workaround.

“Neither SpaceX nor Elon Musk is affiliated with any Hyperloop companies,” the competition announcement explains on its website, referring to the private companies like Hyperloop Transportation Technologies that have popped up to tackle the project since Musk first unveiled the Hyperloop concept two years ago. “While we are not developing a commercial Hyperloop ourselves, we are interested in helping to accelerate development of a functional Hyperloop prototype.”

Making space for Hyperloop

A competition delving into the technology behind the Hyperloop might be putting the cart before horse: Even if it can be built, does it have a place in the modern American transportation infrastructure?

Addressing this question and hundreds of others, the SupraStudio program at UCLA’s school of Architecture and Urban Design dedicated an entire year of study to the Hyperloop. Their research carefully examines the feasibility of the Hyperloop with an eye toward both design and installation within our transportation infrastructure.

“When Elon Musk first published the Hyperloop whitepaper in August of 2013, we were immediately drawn to it,” Special Projects Director for UCLA Caroline Blackburn told The Fuse. “Wouldn’t it be something if you lived in Boston and travelled to Miami for the day? [The Hyperloop] takes great distances and making them very manageable.”

The program initially asked Musk to collaborate with them but he declined, instead redirecting them to work in tandem with private developer Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.

SupraStudio’s impressively thorough whitepaper takes into account the entire history of human travel to plan for implementation of the Hyperloop. In one graph comparing the various modes of travel today with the Hyperloop, it becomes clear that the latter could provide a major reduction in fossil fuel reliance.

The paper posits that flights, on average, carry between 66 and 100 people an hour at a CO2 emissions cost of .185 kg/passenger mile. The Hyperloop, however, could theoretically carry 840 people every hour a CO2 emissions cost of .170 kg/passenger mile. In their estimate, cars represent the most taxing form of personal travel: Carrying between one and eight passengers at a CO2 emissions cost of .225 kg/passenger mile.

Of course, the added benefit of the Hyperloop is that in addition to net energy savings, it would presumably be powered by stationary electricity generation, including coal, gas, nuclear, renewables, or hydropower. At present, both automobile and airplane fuel is monopolized by a single volatile fuel source—oil.

It may be fast, but is it convenient?

Although the Hyperloop potentially poses a solution to reducing our reliance on traditionally gas guzzling modes of travel, modern day, intra-city logistics could prove daunting to the project’s feasibility.

Today’s system of highways and byways may indeed pose the most integral challenge to the Hyperloop concept—even as the next step Musk announced concerns only the design of the pod that will travel through the system.

“If it takes you an hour and a half to get to the [Hyperloop] station and only 30 minutes to travel [between cities], how is that improving anything?” Blackburn says. “That’s just one of the things the students are taking into consideration.”

Today’s system of highways and byways may indeed pose the most integral challenge to the Hyperloop concept—even as the next step Musk announced concerns only the design of the pod that will travel through the system.

Dr. Daniel Sperling is the founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. As he explained in an email to The Fuse, finding where to fit the Hyperloop within our current transportation infrastructure is still a major unresolved question.

“There are lots of great ideas. But superimposing them on the well-established car and road-based system of today and with today’s sprawled land development is very challenging in many ways,” Dr. Sperling explained. “We have an incredibly inefficient, resource-intensive, expensive transportation system. If I were king…or could start with a clean slate, I would create a dramatically cheaper, [more] efficient…system.”

The SupraStudio whitepaper does acknowledge the high bar for implementing the Hyperloop within today’s infrastructure. The study’s solution: Build the Hyperloop to follow existing routes already in use today.

The future of transportation

The road ahead for the Hyperloop may be long, but as UCLA’s Blackburn sees it, there will always be skeptics when it comes to major changes.

“Think about the roads being built in the 1860s. There were skeptics and naysayers and people who didn’t believe in that dream of changing the way transportation happened,” she explained.

While Musk may not be tackling these implementation issues yet, SupraStudio and other groups are able to take on these questions, largely thanks to Musk’s inclusiveness, calling on the world’s best and brightest to join him in implementing his vision of the future. The next phase of the Hyperloop—the pod design competition—is yet another example of the “big tent” strategy that has come to be a hallmark of Musk’s approach to new technology.

“Think about the roads being built in the 1860s. There were skeptics and naysayers and people who didn’t believe in that dream of changing the way transportation happened.”

Just last year he made headlines for making all Tesla Motors technology open-source, physically removing all of the patent certificates from the wall of the motor company’s headquarters. “If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal,” Musk explained in a statement at the time. “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” The message was repeated earlier this year when Musk announced the Powerwall. Yet again, he was quick to announce that the home battery system would also openly share its technology with the public.

In the coming months, Musk will announce more details about the Hyperloop design competition. Interested applicants have until September to sign up and the deciding pod race will come in June of next year. Leaders at UCLA’s SupraStudio are still mulling whether or not to join in Musk’s new competition, but Blackburn insists that the study they’ve completed in the past year was not an academic thought experiment but rather an exercise in reality.

“These are students who were born with technology at their fingertips. For them, it’s a fearless opportunity to explore a new technology that they feel will be built in the next ten to fifteen years. It’s not a thought experiment to them. They see it as real. They don’t see their research going to waste because [the Hyperloop] is so doable.”