The Hyperloop is coming to Texas. That’s the word from Elon Musk, who unveiled his idea for the revolutionary transit system 18 months ago, and yesterday tweeted his plans to build a test track for companies and student teams working to make the idea a reality.
In August 2013, the Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO gave the world a 57-page alpha white paper, explaining his vision of how the transit system, which would shoot pods full of people around the country in above-ground tubes at 800 mph.
Musk stuck to his standard announcement system—drop big news, keep quiet on details—so we don’t know much about what he’s got in mind, when it would happen, how much it would cost, who would pay for it, or why, exactly, he wants to do it. (On that last one, we suspect the answer is because this thing is a damn awesome idea and he doesn’t want to miss out.)
If Musk does in fact build a test track, in Texas or elsewhere, it would be a huge help to the company that’s made more progress than anyone toward making the Hyperloop happen. The track isn’t the part of this endeavor that’s hard to engineer. “It’s a couple of tubes and a vacuum pump,” says Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of JumpStartFund, an El Segunda, California-based startup that is taking Musk up on his challenge to develop and build the Hyperloop. But, like most chunks of infrastructure, even in prototype sizes, it’s expensive.
If Musk pays for it—hey, the guy’s worth $7.5 billion—it’s a major item JumpStartFund can stop worrying about. “We’ll be able to act faster because that big problem is solved,” Ahlborn says. He hasn’t done the math on how much a test track would cost or how long it would take to build, but imagines it would be a simple affair, since it’s just for testing purposes. It would have one tube instead of the two planned for the commercial version (one for each direction), and would be kept low to the ground.
JumpStartFund brought together a group of about 100 engineers all over the country who spend their free time spitballing ideas in exchange for stock options, and have day jobs at companies like Boeing, NASA, Yahoo!, and Airbus. They and a group of 25 students at UCLA’s graduate architecture program are working on a wide array of issues, including route planning, capsule design, and cost analysis.
“It’s hugely feasible” to build a working Hyperloop, says Professor Craig Hodgetts, who’s leading the UCLA team. Besides land acquisition and political concerns, the big concerns are creating a capsule system that feels comfortable and safe for passengers, and how to design a station to accommodate a continuous stream of pods coming and going—the Hyperloop will work more like a ski lift than a railroad.
All that will take time to figure out, Hodgetts says, and if Musk gets busy building track while the JumpStartFund and UCLA folks put together everything else, it could drastically cut down the time the project would take. “It’s just like having a bunch of supercomputers side by side.”