Elon Musk is nothing if not ambitious.
The billionaire tech entrepreneur who co-founded PayPal in 1998 and sits at the forefront of a whole bevvy of industries as the CEO of both electric car manufacturer Tesla and private space flight company SpaceX now claims to be in the early stages of another breakthrough--this time in the world of mass transit.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Musk--who director Jon Favreau has said was the inspiration for his take on Iron Man industrialist Tony Stark--talked a little about his newest project:
On the assumption that people will be living on earth for some time, Musk is cooking up plans for something he calls the Hyperloop. He won't share specifics but says it's some sort of tube capable of taking someone from downtown San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes. He calls it a "fifth mode of transportation"--the previous four being train, plane, automobile, and boat. "What you want is something that never crashes, that’s at least twice as fast as a plane, that's solar powered and that leaves right when you arrive, so there is no waiting for a specific departure time," Musk says. His friends claim he's had a Hyperloop technological breakthrough over the summer. "I'd like to talk to the governor and president about it," Musk continues. "Because the $60 billion bullet train they're proposing in California would be the slowest bullet train in the world at the highest cost per mile. They're going for records in all the wrong ways." The cost of the SF-LA Hyperloop would be in the $6 billion range, he says.
Speaking with PandoDaily at an event earlier this year, Musk explained that Hyperloop, which essentially resembles one of those people-moving tubes from futuristic cartoons like the Jetsons or Futurama, would cost significantly less per ticket than traveling from San Francisco to Los Angles by plane or using the long-in-the-works bullet train that initially inspired Musk to dream up the project in the first place.
Musk has said he's looking into patenting the idea and then open-sourcing the license to someone who looks like they have the resources and technical know-how to build it.
The promise of this new technology and multi-decade lead time of the completion of California's increasingly controversial high speed rail project has led NBC Bay Area's Joe Matthews to wonder if California's bullet train will be obsolete by the time it's finished being built. "It's a reminder that the world changes fast, and technology is advancing," wrote Matthews. "And a state that bets tens of billions of dollars on a technology--high-speed rail--that is already old could be making a historically bad bet."
Not everyone is so optimistic about the transformative potential of Musk's idea. "The fastest maglev speed recorded is 361 mph, well short of the 900 mph this tube idea would require," wrote bullet train booster Robert Cruickshank on the California High Speed Rail Blog. "Supersonic aerial transport has been tried, namely with the Concorde, but the operating costs were too high and it proved to be extremely difficult to get permission to operate it over land (which is why it primarily served a trans-Atlantic route). I suppose there might be some way to hit 900 mph in a tube but I have no idea what that would be."
"I'm not trying to harsh on Elon Musk’s idea, but this is not particularly realistic," added Cruickshank. "Sure, there's been a lot of technological innovation over the last 20 years, but it's led to the iPhone, not to a series of transportation tubes."
No matter what happens with the Hyperloop, California's high speed rail project remains on track.
Earlier this month, the Federal Railroad Administration gave the green light to start the first phase of construction, a segment between Fresno and Merced in the state's Central Valley. The groundbreaking for that 65-mile stretch of track is scheduled for next year.