Tesla CEO offers an alternative to Calif.'s proposed high-speed rail

Elon Musk -- the owner of Tesla Motors Inc. and SpaceX -- has offered his vision for high-speed public transportation. Called the "Hyperloop," it amounts to flying in a pipeline.

The transportation system Musk described yesterday in his white paper is made up of two long, steel tubes that could jet people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes inside small pods traveling up to 800 mph.

Traveling in the Hyperloop would feel much like being in an airplane, according to Musk. "Once you're traveling at speed, you wouldn't really notice the speed at all," he said.

"It would be extremely smooth, like you were riding on a cushion of air," Musk added.

The car-sized pods Musk proposes would, quite literally, be riding on air. The vessel would be equipped with an electric compressor fan on its nose that would transfer high-pressure air from the front to the back of the vehicle. The concept is similar to a puck on an air hockey table, except that the pod would create its own pillow of air.

An on-board battery pack would power the fan moving air around the capsule, while linear electric motors mounted inside the tube would propel the pod forward by creating an electromagnetic pulse. The motors Musk and his team proposes, which are ostensibly rolled out versions of the alternating-current induction motor used in the Tesla Model S, would be installed at 70-mile increments to keep the pod up to speed. As the pod decelerates, the linear electric motors would then capture the kinetic energy and drive it back into the system.

The concept looks like an old-style pneumatic mail delivery system, but operates more like one of the magnetic levitation train systems found in Japan -- except that the Hyperloop vessels could reach supersonic speeds. The cushion of air that surrounds the pod in a tube largely purged of air means there would be next to no friction or wind resistance inside the pipeline. The air density at ground level is so high, it would take an enormous amount of energy for a conventional train to overcome the resistance generated in getting to 800 mph.

Musk's proposed Hyperloop, meanwhile, would generate more energy than it needed to operate. By outfitting the tube with solar panels and battery packs, the builders could make the system entirely self-powering and nearly emissions-free.


An alternative to high-speed rail?

The Hyperloop concept popped into Musk's head about two years ago, stemming from his frustration with California's proposed, but controversial, high-speed rail project.

"It's actually worse, I think, than taking the plane," Musk said of the rail project in a public discussion last week with Sir Richard Branson. "Why would one want to do a big, expensive project like that, which is slower than alternatives and I think likely will be more expensive than alternatives?"

By the time it's built, Musk anticipates the high-speed rail line could cost north of $100 billion, up from the current budget of roughly $70 billion over the next 16 years. California taxpayers will have to cover that bill and pay to operate it, said Musk.

"That just doesn't seem wise for a state that was facing bankruptcy not that long ago," he said yesterday.

Musk's proposed Hyperloop line from Los Angeles to San Francisco could be built for an estimated $6 billion, or about 10 times less than the proposed California high-speed rail project.

"The high-speed rail is a complete disaster," said Nick Garzilli, spokesman for Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies, or ET3, which has come up with its own high-speed transportation system.

Like the Hyperloop, the ET3 network would move people around in pods, but would use a vacuum system instead of air. In his white paper, Musk noted that vacuum systems are incredibly difficult to maintain; it would only take one leak to shut down the system. Technical differences aside, ET3 and Musk are aligned in their mission to replace high-speed rail with a new form of transportation.

"We want to spend $100 million of taxpayer money for slowest 'fast train' in the world," said Garzilli of the high-speed rail project. "I think [Musk] loves California and he wants to save the state and, in a way, save the nation. He wants to see us progress."

A rail fan is underwhelmed

On a Tesla Motors earnings call last week, Musk said he didn't have any plans to execute the Hyperloop project, "because I must remain focused on SpaceX and Tesla."

But yesterday, the entrepreneur said that if no one else steps up to the plate, "Maybe I can do the beginning bit and create a sub-scale version that's operating and then hand it over to somebody else."

While it's not a top priority, Musk said there could be a demonstration project up and running in three to four years. Musk envisions that the pilot would be built on private land, like at a Tesla or SpaceX facility, in order to avoid the government regulatory process and be able to iterate quickly on the design.

Having received an enormous amount of support for the Hyperloop, Musk seems hardened in proving there's a better way to transport people up and down California and across the country than high-speed rail. "The train in question would be both slower, more expensive to operate (if unsubsidized) and less safe by two orders of magnitude than flying, so why would anyone use it?" he wrote in the Hyperloop report.

Ethan Elkind, climate policy associate at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Law, views Musk's criticism of the rail project as counterproductive.

"Whatever he's proposing will be a new technology, where we know high-speed rail works and is in existence around the world," he said. "I don't want to stifle innovation and make it high-speed rail versus this technology, but I think he's unfortunately creating misperceptions about high-speed rail. I think he can prove his project without pitting it against HSR."

While the California rail system could have been designed better, Elkind said he thinks planners have done a good job navigating the complex political and environmental barriers associated with such a large infrastructure project. When complete, the line from San Francisco to Los Angeles will cost less than air travel and will produce less greenhouse gas emissions.

Building out the rail system will be carbon-intensive, said Elkind. But authorities are planning to offset those emissions with renewable energy projects. According to state officials, the high-speed rail system will displace the carbon emissions of 31,000 vehicles in its first year of operation (E&ENews PM, July 2).

"Long-term, in terms of reducing greenhouse gases, we have to electrify our transportation," Elkind said. "And high-speed rail is one way to do that."

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