Trains: The future?

If trains keep progressing the way they have in the last 200 years, where will we stand tomorrow?

The steam locomotive was replaced by diesel and electric trains. Today, diesel and electric trains are rivaled by maglev technology. The maglev train is the leading rail technology of this era in terms of speed and efficiency, but what’s the inevitable “next big thing?”

Perhaps it will be something completely different, something new—something we haven’t totally figured out yet. When we look to the future, what does the technology look like?

Elon Musk

When looking to the future, the work of Elon Musk is a great place to start.

Elon Musk is a business magnet, an entrepreneur who holds a great deal of influence and power in his field. He’s made a huge impact in the tech field, which definitely includes the world of transportation.

Elon Musk at SpaceX. Photo from Flickr user OnInnovation
Elon Musk at SpaceX.
Photo from Flickr user OnInnovation

Musk is the founder, CEO (chief executive officer), and CTO (chief technology officer) of SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation); co-founder, CEO, and product architect of Tesla Motors (maker of the electric car and renewable energy storage); and chairman of SolarCity.

Hyperloop: The vision

The Hyperloop is another innovative idea from the mind of Elon Musk.

Musk says the idea for the Hyperloop originally came to him when he was stuck in traffic in Los Angeles, California, an hour late, thinking to himself: “There has got to be some better way to get around.”

The Hyperloop is Musk’s idea for a futuristic, high-speed train that he says could effectively travel at the speed of sound. Musk originally described his idea for the Hyperloop as a cross between “a Concorde, a railgun, and an air hockey table.”

So what would a ride on the Hyperloop be like?

Its passengers would sit comfortably in a pod while being propelled forward through a de-pressurized tube at 700 to 800 miles per hour (mph).

The Hyperloop is afforded its super-fast travel speeds because of the tube, which allows the pod to travel through a virtually resistance-free track. The Hyperloop’s air compressor would draw air into the tube and then send it to the back, which would propel the pod forward with vacuum-like suction.

Hyperloop: The reality

So, who are the people and companies building Elon Musk’s Hyperloop?

After Musk played with the idea of a high-speed transportation system in 2012, he assigned a team of engineers from SpaceX and Tesla to create the basic conceptual framework and design for the Hyperloop.

After publishing the details of the Hyperloop in 2013, Musk “open sourced” the idea, which meant that it was open to anyone, anywhere, who wanted take his vision and make it a reality. Two companies stepped up to the challenge: Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT).

Hyperloop tubes await future test runs. Photo courtesy of HyperloopOne press kit
Hyperloop tubes await future test runs.
Photo courtesy of Hyperloop One press kit

Though neither SpaceX nor Musk are affiliated with either of these commercial Hyperloop companies, they’re interested in helping accelerate the development of the first Hyperloop prototype, which is why SpaceX is holding Hyperloop pod design contests from 2015 to 2017.

Hyperloop: The answer?

So how does the Hyperloop compare to a traditional high-speed rail?

Musk actually envisioned the Hyperloop as an alternative to the California High-Speed Rail project, which will cost an estimated $68 billion. However, the HTT CEO claims that their Hyperloop would cost just 10 to 20 percent of what the California High-Speed Rail project would.

What’s even better is that the Hyperloop would have zero negative impacts on the environment, as it’s completely self-powered using solar energy. The Hyperloop is also designed to be “earthquake-stable,” since it would travel above ground. Musk says the Hyperloop would be immune to weather and nearly crash proof.

Musk’s original idea was to use air ski bearings—paddles that use the surrounding air in the environment to create pressurized pockets—that the Hyperloop would ride on. However, the companies working to construct the Hyperloop are steering instead toward maglev technology for propulsion.

The future

No matter how it’s done, further Hyperloop development could change the way we live our lives.

It would make that 350-mile journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco a 30-minute trip. The same trip would normally take 2 to 3 hours by the proposed California High-Speed Rail and about 6 hours via car.

When we think about the future, innovators like Elon Musk are making a difference by questioning the way we do things and posing a better alternative. But Elon Musk isn’t the first of his kind, and he certainly won’t be the last.

We come back to the real question: What could the future look like? Or, what’s possible?

Think about it this way: About 200 years ago, traveling at 50 mph was unthinkable, and people were sure passengers wouldn’t survive the ride. Today, we made fools out of our predecessors by traveling at speeds of 100, 200, and even 300 mph!

Will history repeat itself? Will future generations laugh at those of us who thought the Hyperloop was impossible? Only time will tell. However, in the meantime, it might be worth getting involved.

Related links

Hyperloop explained by HTT CEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Klla4de0KFc

Hyperloop One: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14Hs0r5RUww

Hyperloop One speed test run: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0IRclw_ts8

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer