L.A. to San Francisco in 30 minutes

Sure, Elon Musk's Hyperloop is just an idea ... but imagine the possibilities

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It sounds more like a riddle than a plan for mass transportation, and certainly tech billionaire Elon Musk’s Hyperloop—a “cross between a Concorde and a rail gun and an air-hockey table,” has many in the engineering world puzzled. But aside from the aforementioned description, the PayPal founder has been tight-lipped about the $70-billion project. Detailed plans are now slated for release on Aug. 12.

The gist? The Hyperloop is a method of transit so advanced and so fast it promises to zip passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in half an hour. That’s a five-hour improvement over the average drive—plenty of cause for excitement (and skepticism.) According to the buzz, the futuristic train will blast passengers in suspended pods through a tube at a speed of 1,200 km/hr. The driving force would come from magnetic fields mounted outside of the tube. As for the air-hockey element, Bruce Dunwoody, a mechanical engineer at the University of British Columbia, says “air bearings,” or pressurized air, could be used to support the passenger compartments. Traditionally, he says, ball bearings are employed in trains and while air offers less friction, it will also require considerably more power. The same is true of a vacuum, which some theorize will be used to reduce the air drag in the tube. Musk has said the train might be solar-powered, another lofty goal.

Gizmodo, a popular tech website, recently speculated the primary challenge for Musk, financially at least, could be the construction of underground tunnels. But Dunwoody says tunnels would not be safe in an area as seismically active as California. “An elevated guideway would be cheaper and safer,” he says. Nonetheless he agrees that cost, and not technology, will be the big barrier to the project. “Certainly, we have airplanes that operate at those sorts of speeds, so it is technically feasible. However, airplanes do not have to pay for the right-of-ways to cross people’s properties whereas any train will need to.” With so many obstacles and not even a rough draft of the design on the table, Hyperloop, and travellers, are likely in for a few more years of gridlock.

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