Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, the creator of Space X, a commercial space transport firm, and chief executive of Tesla Motors (TSLA) has apparently grown bored in his ho-hum entrepreneurial pursuits. About a year ago, Musk mentioned his interest in designing a high-speed transportation system that would get passengers from Los Angeles to New York in 45 minutes. As the first whispers of his intentions got around, many were skeptical of such an ambitious idea, but there was an air of anticipation. After all, Elon Musk is a man who has taken on seemingly impossible projects before, one such being Space X, and the fact that he successfully created and built up a privately-held rocket company proves his ability to beat the odds in the face of disbelief.

So what is his master plan to get citizens from point A to point B? Mail them there.

Well, not exactly mail, but the system Musk has designed, named the Hyperloop, is based on the pneumatic tube system that was used “…to send mail and packages within and between buildings,” as he describes in his technical paper on the Hyperloop. Some may be familiar with the tubes use at bank teller drive-throughs.

Using this concept, Musk’s Hyperloop features two tubes, which would act like two lanes of opposing traffic. The system would be 20 feet above ground, supported by pylons, and would follow generally alongside Interstate 5. Pods full of passengers would be propelled by electric motors at subsonic speeds through the tubes. A fan at the front of each pod would pull away compressed air from the front and push it behind the pod, creating a cushion of air that the system would ride on. Musk compared it to the technology in air hockey tables. It sounds more like the transport system in the science fiction cartoon sitcom, Futurama.

The spark that caused Musk’s innovation was one of anger concerning California’s recently approved plan for a high-speed rail system. In his technical paper explaining the Hyperloop, Musk laments on his disappointment in the project in his paper. “How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL – doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?”

Musk does have a point. According to the California High-Speed Rail Authority website, the system, projected to be complete in 2029, would “…run from San Francisco to the Los Angeles basin in under three hours at speeds capable of over 200 miles per hour.” But in 2008, the Reason Foundation, Citizens Against Government Waste, and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association published, “The California High Speed Rail Proposal: A Due Diligence Report.” In the report, it was found that no train system currently exists that meets the promised speeds while maintaining safety goals. The high-speed rail project is estimated to cost around $70 billion and would cut across a total of 800 miles.

The technology for the approved train doesn’t exist. This makes Musk’s giant tubes of air sound like a completely viable option. The idea sounds even better when Musk explains that his Hyperloop would cost about one tenth of the rail system budget, and would be far less of an impact on the environment.

It is the 800 miles of track that has farmers and other Californians up in arms, a problem that Musk also addresses in his design. “By building it on pylons, you can almost entirely avoid the need to buy land by following alongside the mostly very straight California Interstate 5 highway…Even when the Hyperloop path deviates from the highway, it will cause minimal disruption to farmland roughly comparable to a tree or telephone pole…” This in comparison to the hundred or so feet of land needed on either side of rail tracks, not to mention the infrastructure and fencing that would go up.

The project itself has little public backing, as the Economist reports that a statewide poll found 50% opposition.

The Hyperloop sounds like a fantastic replacement for this already failing rail system project, but Musk’s plan is not without its own problems. The Hyperloop proposal is open source, meaning Musk is inviting anyone interested to work out the kinks, such as how to cross the San Francisco Bay, or how to negate the fact that the tube would run alongside the San Andreas Fault. How would one fair suspended in a giant rigid tube during an earthquake? Government officials are extremely skeptical of the plan, and it looks doubtful that the Hyperloop would gain enough official backing for it to become reality.

But there is always hope, and finally seeing some of that futuristic infrastructure we were promised as children would be pretty cool.

Image Courtesy of Tech Glam