How the Hyperloop Works

Mind Your Step, Pod People
This cutaway of the Hyperloop passenger capsule gives you an idea of what it might be like to sit in the proposed transportation system.
This cutaway of the Hyperloop passenger capsule gives you an idea of what it might be like to sit in the proposed transportation system.
Image courtesy Elon Musk

Musk promises that the pods would be comfortable and safe. Pods would travel through the Hyperloop one at a time, leaving every 30 seconds or so at rush hour and spaced 23 miles (37 kilometers) apart on average. Passengers can enter and exit the tube at each end and via branches along the loop (see Musk's white paper for proposed route specifics). Each passenger pod is designed to hold 28 people seated in 14 rows of two, along with a luggage compartment in one end, and larger pods can hold a car. Passengers would pay $20 for a one-way ticket [sources: Belfiore, SpaceX, Lavrinc].

Once on and rid of their luggage, passengers could settle into their seats, buckle their seat belts and flip on their personal entertainment displays for the 35-minute ride. Just don't get up to use the bathroom. Because there's no mention of one. Yet. And with a maximum pod height of 6.11 feet (1.10 meters) and width of 4.43 feet (1.35 meters), it might be a little too cozy for the claustrophobically inclined [sources: SpaceX].

Will the Hyperloop work? Who knows? Musk seems to think so, and many people say it's possible. The closest thing to the high-speed Hyperloop is the maglev bullet train, which can top out at 361 miles (581 kilometers) per hour. Jim Powell, who helped invent the train, told The Verge that Musk is on to something by enclosing the system in a tube. He said that a system out in the open creates too much drag. Powell added that drag could still be a problem even inside the hermetically sealed Hyperloop, and maintaining a speed of say 600 miles (966 kilometers) per hour might be difficult [source: Brandom].

Moreover, the Hyperloop would work best if the tubes were built in a straight line, which they can't be due to the landscape between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Powell said riders could get sick if the pods turn too sharply [source: Brandom].

While many people agree that the technical problems created by the Hyperloop could probably be solved, many question at what price. They say the $6 billion price tag is excessively low for a high-speed project of this magnitude. Heck, renovations to the San Francisco Bay Bridge totaled $6.4 billion [source: Thanawala]. For his part, Musk doesn't want to spend his own money and hopes others will step forward, maybe even you, dear readers, via crowdfunding sites such as JumpStartFund. If not, then perhaps the man who put the first privately owned rocket into space will also give the world the Hyperloop.

Author's Note: How the Hyperloop Works

Innovation is scary. When someone proposes a revolutionary concept, our first reaction is to dismiss it, say that it can't be done. Ask the Wright brothers or the astronauts who walked on the moon. The real dilemma may not be in the speed at which science and technology move or in the products it creates, but in our inability to deal with the implications of new discoveries and technologies in a thoughtful manner. Whether motivated by unadulterated greed (read: the railroad barons of the late 19th century), or for the public good, history has shown that society's innovators, its dreamers, have always moved the ball forward, leaving the rest of us to follow.

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  • Belifiore, Michael. "All Aboard the Hyperloop." Popular Mechanics. Aug. 12, 2013. (Aug. 29, 2013).
  • Bilton, Nick. "Elon Musk Unveils Plans for Hyperloop High-Speed Train." The New York Times. Aug. 12, 2013. (Aug. 29, 2013).
  • Brandom, Russell. "Here's how Elon Musk's Hyperloop might actually work." The Verge. July 18, 2013. (Aug. 29, 2013).
  • Lavrinc, Damon. "This is the Hyperloop, Elon Musk's Fantasy Vision of Mass Transit. Wired. Aug. 12, 2013. (Aug. 28, 2013).
  • SpaceX. "Hyperloop Alpha." (Aug. 28, 2013).
  • Thanawala, Sudhin. "First Cars Cross SF-Oakland Bay Bridge's New Span." Associated Press on ABC News. (Sept. 5, 2012)