When Elon Musk unveiled plans for “supersonic air travel” back in 2013, people thought he was crazy. Rockets and electric sports cars are fathomable, but traveling through a tube at 700 m.p.h.?
But Mr. Musk’s vision caught the attention of a group of engineers who have not only designed an electric motor, but are ready to begin stage-one testing.
This week, Hyperloop Technologies Inc. announced that construction of a 1-km test track will begin this month at their 50-acre facility in North Las Vegas, bringing humans one step closer to being able to move like “paper flying through the pneumatic tubes banks used in the ’60s.”
The so-called Propulsion Open Air Test will allow the Hyperloop Tech engineers to test their linear electric motor at speeds around 330 m.p.h., half the desired speed, but the fastest tested to date.
"This decision represents another major milestone in our journey to bring Hyperloop to commercial reality," CEO Rob Lloyd said in a statement.
Hyperloop Tech, the self-proclaimed, “company that is making Hyperloop a reality,” is building off Musk’s initial design for a vacuum tube with electromagnetic suspension – a means of travel that they argue would be safer, faster, and more convenient than traditional transportation methods.
But “rather than sucking a capsule through a tube like a stale Goldfish through a vacuum cleaner, its tech would keep the capsule moving with occasional shoves, the way Messi dribbles the ball on a fast break,” says Wired.
“Active stator coils built into the track react with magnets built into the capsule, boosting it through the tube. Low air pressure means minimal friction slowing the capsule, and evenly spaced stator coils keep it moving.”
Hyperloop Tech says this is just the first step towards their first full system, full scale, full speed test, internally named “Kitty Hawk.”
“This will be over 2 miles of tube with a controlled environment and inside that tube we will levitate a pod and accelerate it to over 700 m.p.h. We aim to achieve this in Q4 2016,” wrote Mr. Lloyd in the company’s blog.
But the looming question rests on the economics behind the system.
"The physics of it works," John Hansman Jr., aeronautics and astronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told the Chicago Tribune. "The real question is, can you get it to a point where it will be cost-competitive with other means of transportation?"
Hyperloop Tech has raised $37 million so far, with a goal of $80 million for second-round fundraising. But this is only to finance the completion of a two-mile track. A financially viable high-speed tube transportation system remains an open question.
Michael McDonald at Oilprice.com takes a stab at answering the financial viability question. His conclusion? At a total cost of about $5.4 billion to build a system between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the hyperloop has an big advantage over the estimated $100 billion cost of building a high-speed train.