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Elon Musk unveils Hyperloop plan. How would it work?

Elon Musk, already the force behind SpaceX and Tesla, has sketched out a commuting system between L.A. and San Francisco that would reach speeds of 760 m.p.h. Here are the basics behind the Hyperloop.

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The Hyperloop splits the difference. To reduce air resistance as the aerodynamic capsule races through elevated steel tubes, air pressure would be reduced to levels equivalent to flying at 150,000 feet, while air pressure inside the capsules would be kept at normal levels – a concept familiar to anyone flying in commercial airliners.

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The system relies on linear motors some 2.5 miles long to accelerate the capsules to top speed, and then decelerate them, at the appropriate locations along the route.

The design leaves little room between the capsule and the tube walls for air to flow along the capsule's length, which would allow pressure to build up ahead of the capsule and introduce drag. To keep air moving, the capsule sports a compressor in front that operates much like the compressor in a jet engine. In this case, the compressed air flows out through exhaust ports to keep the capsule levitated and provide additional push.

The plan also includes a proposed route that would have less impact on the landscape, but more on the view, than a bullet train. And it indicates sections along the route that would require the capsules to slow a bit to perhaps 300 miles an hour to avoid exposing passengers to large G-forces as the capsules take curves.

The approach requires no exotic technologies, such as energy-hungry superconducting magnets. But it uses existing technologies in an outside-the-box combination.

During a press briefing Monday, Musk acknowledged that – unlike SpaceX or Tesla – he doesn't have the bandwidth to build the system. Instead, he suggested he might underwrite a demonstration project to test the concept's feasibility. After that, it's up to someone else to take the concept and run with it, he said.

That could be a tough proposition. California's high-speed rail project has left the station. In May, the California High Speed Rail Authority selected a lead contractor for the project, and it currently is in the market for contractors who can supply environmental and right-of-way engineering services.

For the benefits that might accrue to business travelers on the L.A. to 'Frisco run, the price tag that Musk estimated for his Hyperloop system could be put to better use, some suggest.

"Over the years there have been many proposals to reduce intercity trip times," notes Juan Matute, director of the Local Climate Change Initiative at the University of California at Los Angeles's Lewis Center, via e-mail. "Supersonic flight and high-speed rail are two ideas that came to fruition," if briefly, in the case of supersonic airliners.

But, he adds, "No proposal has obviated the need to improve transportation within cities and regions to give people greater reliability on the transportation networks they use every day."

Chicago to St. Louis, anyone?

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