One of the first sights that greets viewers of the science fiction comedy Futurama is the system of tubes that the characters use to traverse their city. This tube system, through technology that is never explained in the show, shoots travelers through a network of tubes to allow them to reach their destination quickly and safely. The system shown in Futurama alleviates traffic issues without creating any pollution or sending people to the wrong destination. The tubes shown in Futurama have no clear propulsion or safety system, and no hints are provided to how travelers are steered towards their destination. This lack of information makes discussing the likelihood of building a real version difficult, but Futurama’s tube transit system has already inspired some real-life imitators.
Elon Musk is a billionaire who was one of the founding members of Paypal and is now involved with SpaceX, Tesla Motors Inc., and SolarCity. Musk has recently unveiled his idea for a new tube-based rapid transit system that seems to promise some of the advantages of that shown in Futurama using current generation technology. Known as the Hyperloop, this system proposes the creation of metal tubes that would be raised above the ground on supports. This tunnel would be kept at a very low air pressure, and pressurized pods carrying up to 28 passengers would travel through them at blistering speeds. The proposal also suggests that larger pods capable of carrying cars could be created. Musk proposes that a system of air jets on the bottom of each pod would levitate them within the tube, and then the pod would be propelled by a series of electromagnets placed along the tube itself. This system would function much like a railgun, and Musk’s estimates suggest that a pod could travel 1,100 to 1,200 kilometers per hour. His current idea is to build a Hyperloop track that will run from San Francisco to Los Angeles, allowing people to replace a 75-minute plane trip or a 5½-hour drive with a 30-minute Hyperloop jaunt.
Musk is offering this technology as a possible replacement to the high-speed train system that the state of California is proposing. This proposed train network is expected to cost $68 billion and will take over 2½ hours to travel from one end to the other. Hyperloop’s estimated budget is only $6 billion, and Musk believes construction could be finished within 7 to 10 years. His plans call for the entire system to be solar powered, which would cut down on pollution and operating costs. If this system were built, it would provide a strong competitor to other transit systems, and likely be expanded as time went on.
There are some detractors and skeptics to Musk’s ideas. Some people question the budget, saying that the real costs would be closer to twice that Musk estimated. This would still make the Hyperloop much cheaper than the proposed high speed transit system. Some critics have also questioned the safety of the Hyperloop system, and whether it is necessary at all. When Musk first released his plans for the Hyperloop, he stressed that it is simply an alpha design and that he is too busy in his work with two other companies to focus on Hyperloop, although he would be willing to start the project before handing control off to another person or company. He released the plans as an open source idea in the hope that critics and others would offer constructive criticism and propose changes to deal with potential problems.
The future of the Hyperloop is still in question, but Musk seems to have succeeded in creating a great deal of discussion about the design and its potential merits and flaws. Whether or not Hyperloop is ever built, Musk’s proposal has caused people to pay closer attention to issues regarding transit systems. This discussion will hopefully lead to improvements in the technology in transit and how people see it, even if the Hyperloop remains permanently on the drawing board.