Hyperloop: Jumping on board the Elon Musk tubewagon

Elon Musk at a rally at the Tesla car factory in Fremont.
(Paul Sakuma / Associated Press)

That’s one small all-nighter for some men, one giant whoosh for mankind.

Apparently, Elon Musk and a few of the fellas spent Sunday night firming up plans for a $6-billion high-speed transportation system called the Hyperloop, complete with futuristic cars propelled in futuristic tubes by futuristic means (that only physicists understand) to get people from L.A. to S.F. in 30 minutes at speeds approaching 800 mph. Oh yeah, and all that for about $20 each.

I wonder if they ordered pizza.

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Me? I spent my Sunday night watching the Dodgers. Although I did think about some other stuff, none of which seems important now, not with Musk out there reinventing space travel (SpaceX), car travel (Tesla) and now, apparently, rail (tube?) travel.

Forget fluoridation. We should put whatever Musk is drinking into our water.

As for Hyperloop, at first blush it strikes me like those old Popular Science covers from 50 years ago. You know, the ones with the flying cars or the levitating trains or the space planes, all of which we would be enjoying by the year 1999.

Except, of course, we aren’t. We’re still driving cars with engines that run on gas and poke along on concrete roads filled with similar vehicles. Or we’re taking airplanes, which are bigger and faster now, sure, but are also filled with surly flight attendants serving food you have to buy, and carrying bags you have to pay extra for. And don’t even get me started on Amtrak. (Somewhere, Leland Stanford is turning over in his grave.)


Or, as I wrote Monday, we’re going to build a “bullet train,” if we get around to it, which doesn’t look likely. (Although my colleague Jon Healey is betting on it over Hyperloop.)

So if Elon Musk says we can stuff 28 people at a time into the equivalent of a 450-mile pneumatic tube and whoosh them across the Golden State at the speed of sound, right above the cows and the cars of the 5 Freeway -- all for the price of four Happy Meals -- well, to paraphrase the immortal George W. Bush, I say “bring it on!”

But I’m not the only one jumping on the tubewagon. The Times reached a real physicist, Dr. Michio Kaku of City College of New York, to sound him out on the feasibility of Musk’s idea. His take:

“The overall design does not obviously violate any basic principles [of physics]. It might work,” he said. “However, the key is to create small-scale models, place them in vacuum chambers, and see if the idea works and is economical. ... Things which work well on the drawing board at low velocities are notorious for failing at extremely high velocities.”


And they say professors are all ivory-tower types.

However, I too have a little experience with equipment that looked good on the drawing board but was a little, uh, problematic in real life.

I remember when we had pneumatic tubes here at The Times. We used them to whoosh cylinders full of important documents from the newsroom on the third floor to the composing room on the second floor. Quite often, they got stuck. People got paid to fish the cylinders out. One time, a fellow newsman tried to do the job himself. He got his arm stuck in the tube. So the people who got paid to fish the cylinders out had to fish him out too.

It’s just one more great thing about journalism that the Internet killed.



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