hyperloop tube

Photo via Ian Kennedy/Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

Elon Musk's Hyperloop is moving closer to becoming a reality.

We might not have hoverboards, flying cars, or teleporters but don't give up on the science fiction future of transportation just yet. The Hyperloop is moving closer to becoming a reality, after Hyperloop One's first public open-air test Wednesday in the Nevada desert. 

That means it's a good time to ask an important question: What exactly is the Hyperloop?

Hyperloop is a very high speed transit (VHST) system backed by Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors. Musk has described the concept as "a cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table," which is the type of moderately horrifying description only a person who has also openly suggested nuking Mars could come up with.

The simplest way to think about the Hyperloop is as a high-speed train, though before understanding how Musk's idea will work, it's good to know where it came from. 

The origins of the Hyperloop

The VHST was first conceptualized in 1972 by scientist R.M. Salter of the Rand Corporation, who proposed using "electromagnetically levitated and propelled cars in an evacuated tunnel." The vacuum-sealed tubes would be laid underground and set to bounce between major population centers across the United States, including Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City.

Salter's system used electromagnetic waves generated by electrical conductors laid in the body of the tube. Opposing magnetic fields in the vehicle would allow the structures that hold travelers to "ride on" the electromagnetic waves "much as a surfboard rides the ocean's wave," according to Salter.

The system would send passengers flying across the country at 14,000 miles per hour, a speed quick enough to get from Los Angeles to New York City in just 30 minutes. It's also just slightly slower than the speed a space shuttle must reach to maintain orbit.

Interestingly, Salter had zero reservations about the technological feasibility of his VHST, rather just the logistical and political challenges of constructing it; it's pretty hard to convince a multitude of states to allow for hundreds of miles of digging to take place underneath their cities and towns.

Musk's plan isn't quite as ambitious in terms of how much ground it would cover—he's starting with a plan to move folks from San Francisco to Los Angeles before attempting to go across state lines—but it comes with a similar frustration with political reservations on travel. 

The engineer and billionaire began floating the Hyperloop, his revitalized version of the VHST, after the state of California announced in 2013 a $70 billion high-speed train system that Musk found to be too slow, impractical, and expensive. Being the real-life Tony Stark, Musk casually revealed his alternative and got to work making it a reality.

How does the Hyperloop work?

Here's where things get a little tricky, because the version of the Hyperloop that Musk has theorized may not necessarily be the version that is made into a reality. 

Musk's idea utilizes low-pressure tubes through which trains are propelled through using compressed air and magnetic fields laid throughout the tube. The pods in which people are placed in literally float on air through the tube while using the frictionless electromagnetic levitation (maglev) system.

The principle of maglev transportation is actually pretty simple (assuming you aren't a member of the Insane Clown Posse): Large magnets on the train's undercarriage are repelled by electromagnets that are laid throughout the tunnel. The electromagnets are magnetic only when an electric current flows through them, and the polarity of the magnets are constantly alternating as to push and pull the vehicle along the tube. 

Maglev trains move considerably faster than friction-based alternatives like standard wheeled trains; it's the technology that powers the super speed trains found in countries like Japan, which can travel at speeds as fast as 377 miles per hour.

Who's building the Hyperloop?

Since Musk has essentially farmed out the task of making the Hyperloop, different groups are taking different approaches to the project and creating variants on the original idea.

One of the companies tackling the task is Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), a group of part-time engineers located across the United States who recently announced the base technology that will power their take on the transport system.

HTT is set to utilize a passive magnetic levitation system. Originally developed by Dr. Richard Post at Lawrence Livermore National Labs, the technology has been licensed to be used to make its Hyperloop run.

While the passive magnetic levitation system still places magnets on the underside of the passenger carriage, it sets them in an arrangement called a Halbach array, which focuses the magnetic field of a particular set of magnets on one side while countering the field on the other side. 

The system eliminates the need for the electric powered magnetic coils that Musk's system calls for, eliminating the need for power stations along the Hyperloop track. According to HTT, it's also safer than the maglev system because there is no risk of power outage or failure.

How fast will it go?

The bar that seems to be set for the Hyperloop project is to shorten the trip from San Fransisco to Los Angeles to just 30 minutes. Driving the nearly 400 mile trip takes about six hours. Shrinking that distance down to just a half-hour of travel would require speeds of around 600 mph, with top speeds closer to 760 mph. 

It's not quite the 14,000 miles per hour that Salter's original VHST system called for, but Hyperloop operators also won't have to peel human pancakes off the walls of the vehicles this way, either.

How much will it cost?

A lot. Musk's impetus for chasing his tube transportation dream is the fact that he believes California is spending an inordinate amount on an insufficient system, but the Hyperloop isn't exactly a cheap solution, either. 

The paper Musk published on the alpha version of the Hyperloop suggests that it will cost $6 billion, including a surprisingly small $1 billion for land rights, and will generate income by charging $20 a pop for each trip. 

Economists think that estimate is generous at best. According to Michael L. Anderson, an associate professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Berkeley, the proposal looks to cost closer to $100 billion—an even higher projection than is planned to be spent on California's high-speed train system—and wouldn't achieve the value necessary to justify its existence at the ticket price.

Why does the Hyperloop matter?

If everything Musk has claimed about the Hyperloop were true and it worked exactly as expected—which plenty of people are dubious of—it would be a massive boon for everyone from travelers to the working class. 

The average travel time to work for an American is 25.4 minutes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and traveling to and from work costs workers around $2,600 per year—and that's just to get as far as a car can take you with traffic, construction, and all the other possible obstructions factored in, meaning you probably aren't exiting your zip code on the commute.

Public transportation, as it currently exists in the United States and in many other places around the world, cannot offer this type of mobility despite the benefits in providing it—and considerable harm in failing to do so. A study conducted by Harvard found that geographic mobility is linked to economic mobility, while another study from New York University indicated a link between poor access to public transportation and lower income and higher rates of unemployment in New York City. 

With the Hyperloop, major cities and communities would essentially become suburbs of one another and commutes would be considerably shorter, meaning people could easily live on one city while working in another—assuming, once again, that it operates exactly as Musk has suggested.

When will it be finished?

There's no time like the present, right? Since Musk first started talking up his tubes in 2013, the project has made considerable progress. A test track has been built for Musk's version of the system, and the very first of what are sure to be many tests runs from Hyperloop One (formerly Hyperloop Technologies) was completed on May 11, 2016.

Slow-mo of HyperloopOne test

A video posted by Roberto Baldwin (@strngwys) on

Hyperloop One's trial run was the first open-air test of its propulsion technology, and it was deemed a success. The vehicle generated a g-force of about 2.5g—about the same as a Gravitron amusement park ride—before the currently brake-free pod plowed into a pile of sand to come to a stop.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, the company that is opting for the passive magnetic levitation system, began constructing its own test track in November 2015 and estimated the project would take 32 months to build, setting a target for tests to begin in the summer of 2018. 

A third company, called TransPod, is taking on the Hyperloop project in Canada and hopes to have its first lines in place to connect Montreal and Toronto sometime between 2020 and 2025. TransPod also aims to show off a full-scale concept vehicle at the 2016 InnoTrans Rail Show, set to be held in Berlin in September.

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