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Hyperloop brings 50s dreams into jaded world

August 13, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
“90 minutes from New York to Paris, by ’76 we’ll be A-OK....”

-- Donald Fagen, “IGY” (What a Beautiful World),” from the album “The Nightfly,” 1982.

One of my all-time favorite albums featured this track about looking forward into the future from 1957-58, the International Geophysical Year of the “IGY” in the title. The lyrics spoke of taking a glittering graphite train undersea by rail and all kinds of other wonders that were just a couple decades away, or so it seemed in the American 1950s. News stories, magazines, even annuals by encyclopedia companies featured futuristic world vision.

But the innocence of the 1950s gave way to the harsh realities of the 1960s.

Oh, we made it to the moon, there were SST jets (the British/French Aerospatiale built and flew the Concorde, not Boeing) and Disney indeed built a monorail, low speed. But for the most part, America seems to have spent its human and physical capital on wars, building, rebuilding and building anew sports stadiums, entertainment, crime and illicit drugs, cigarettes and buying elections. And the science didn't always work (nuclear power's a real lump in the throat).

We were not A-OK by ’76.

Which is why I am absolutely intrigued by billionaire Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, which takes the Maglev proposals I covered in the 1980s and 1990s to transonic speeds.

The thing Musk unveiled Monday would essentially consist of a tube, a kind of levitation motor system to accelerate the cars in the tube, sleek 28-person capsules and some kind of massive fan to suck air out of the tube. It would be mounted on pylons to minimize land disturbance and could be solar powered, generating more electricity than it uses.

Sounds nuts, but Musk, mind you, has billions of dollars (he founded PayPal), has sent rockets to the International Space Station (he founded SpaceX), and builds luxurious electric cars that actually work (Tesla, which paid off its government loans nine years early), so it might not just be science fiction.

He claims speeds of about 700 mph should be possible, and the thing cannot crash. He says he can build a Los Angeles to San Francisco line for about $6 billion, a tenth of what California is fighting over spending on a proposed high-speed rail line that would “only” go over 100 mph and might not beat air travel between the towns in terms of convenience or cost.

His proposal is out there on the SpaceX website, www.spaceX/hyperloop. He says it would be great for city pairs up to about 900 miles apart, after which he thinks supersonic air travel would be more efficient and cheaper. (Ummm, Mr. Musk might need to figure out where the SSTs of the future would be, and how to overcome all the problems of the Concorde, namely, noise and high fuel consumption and cost.)

He has put both a non-technical and highly technical report together at the website. I chose to read the non-technical one. Even the non-tech thing is kind of painful (I learned of the “Kantrowicz limit” having to do with how fast things can go in a tube before aero pressure slows stuff down).

The tube would be the most expensive part of the system, compared with the motors and other tech, Musk says. He overcomes routing NIMBYs by saying the elevated tubes could be built in the median of I-5 in California. Now, $6 billion ideas make people’s eyes glaze over, even when you tell them what it’s cost to build the Interstate system since the 1950s. By the way, the feds said in 1991 dollars it was $128 billion to build until then, not counting maintenance or mileage that still wasn’t done.

Musk says he’s busy with SpaceX and won’t have time to build Hyperloop, but he might if nobody else picks up the design he’s put out there on the Internet.

Yep, the billionaire says he’s giving away the basic stuff of this dream travel system if somebody wants to make it happen. Which brings back my cynicism. Nobody gives away anything they think might be viable, as in, to make a buck.

Which puts the dream back in the hopper even with my retro-futurist vision that innocently still exists inside my cynical head, a peaceful world ruled by engineering and science with, as Fagen’s song said, “more leisure for artists everywhere.”

Maybe by 2076 you’ll be A-OK. I’ll be 114, and not likely around, unless, as that jaded wonderful song says, we do get to be “eternally free, yes, and eternally young.”

What a beautiful world it would be.


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