Elon Musk reveals new superfast mode of solar-powered transportation

Elon Musk, after keeping the public in suspense for about a year, the chief executive officer of Tesla Motors Inc. (TSLA) and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has revealed some concrete details of what he sees as a new, superfast mode of solar-powered transportation, that would challenge current rail and air transport models dating back to the 19t hand 20th century for distances up to 1,000 miles (1,600km).

In typical Musk fashion, the Hyperloop stands as a challenge to the status quo — in this case, California’s $70 billion high-speed train that has been criticized by Musk and others as too expensive, too slow and too impractical.

The current proposed 130mph (210km/h) high-speed train connection between LA and San Francisco is unnecessarily expensive and underwhelming in ambition, he has complained.

As Musk envisions it, the Hyperloop would transport people from city to city via pods enclosed inside of tubes, Bloomberg Businessweek.com reported on its website. He describes the design as looking like a double-barreled shotgun with the tubes running side-by-side for most of the journey and closing the loop at either end.

These tubes would be mounted on columns 50 to 100 yards (45.7 to 91.4 meters) apart with the pods inside of them going as fast as 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) per hour — fast enough to move someone from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes.

Hyperloop would be a practical solution for city pairs separated by 1,000 miles (1,600km) or less. Beyond this distance, it would be better to take a plane, he explained.

While Musk had hinted at some of these specifications before, he now provides the twist that the pods could ferry people and their cars, too.

“I think to make it really awesome you want the pod to take cars as well as people,” Musk said in an interview before the Hyperloop design was revealed. “You just drive on, and the pod departs.”

Musk posted a blog entry yesterday giving details on the Hyperloop concept, followed by a conference call with reporters.

“You have to look at what they say it will cost versus the actual final costs, and I think it’s safe to say you’re talking about a $100 billion-plus train,” Musk said, while also knocking the train as slow and a horrendous land rights mess.

By placing the Hyperloop on elevated columns, Musk thinks he could avoid many of the land issues. The tubes would, for the most part, follow Interstate 5, the dreary but direct freeway between Los Angeles and points near San Francisco. Farmers would not have swaths of their land blocked by train tracks but could instead access their land between the columns.

Musk figures the Hyperloop could be built for $6 billion with people-only pods, or for $10 billion with the larger pods capable of holding cars. So in effect, he’s proposing an alternative that’s four times as fast and 1/10 the cost of the high-speed rail.

The Hyperloop would be solar powered and tickets would be “much cheaper” than those for a plane ride, said Musk. “There would be solar panels laid on top of the tubes, which generate energy for moving the pods and for excess energy that would be stored, so it can run at night,” he said.

As for safety, “there’s an emergency brake,” he said. “Generally, though, the safe distance between the pods would be about 5 miles, so you could have about 70 pods between Los Angeles and San Francisco that leave every 30 seconds. It’s like getting a ride on Space Mountain at Disneyland.”

The Hyperloop was designed to link cities less than 1,000 miles apart that have high amounts of traffic between them, Musk said. Less than 1,000 miles, the Hyperloop has a nice edge over planes, which need a lot of time to take off and land.

“It makes sense for things like L.A. to San Francisco, New York to D.C., New York to Boston and that sort of thing,” Musk said. “Over 1,000 miles, the tube cost starts to become prohibitive, and you don’t want tubes every which way. You don’t want to live in Tube Land.”