Imagine travelling from Los Angeles to San Francisco - a distance of 400 miles - in under half an hour. Well, that’s exactly what a new transportation system envisioned by billionaire Elon Musk sets out to do.
The ambitious Hyperloop idea, first revealed in a whitepaper published in 2013, is being chased by German-born Dirk Ahlborn because Musk (already CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors) doesn’t have the time to give the project his full attention.
“The Hyperloop is a capsule full of people inside a tube elevated on pylons,” says Ahlborn. “Inside the tube we create a low pressure environment so the capsule doesn’t encounter a lot of resistance and can reach speeds of 1,200kmh (740mph).”
The radical concept - described by Musk as a cross between Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table - propels the capsule through depressurised tubes using magnets and fans.
Ahlborn, a former banker turned entrepreneur, tells me Hyperloop will change the way we live and work. Indeed, the network he dreams of creating could allow people to travel from Chicago to New York in a similar way to how people currently travel from Oxford Circus to Liverpool Street on the London Underground's Central Line.
During his keynote at Pioneers, Ahlborn shows a Tube-like Hyperloop network overlaid on top of a map of the US that could one day become a reality, providing the tests in Quay Valley (see below) go to plan.
Thinking into the future, he says Hyperloop could even be free (or very cheap) for passengers to use, assuming he manages to generate other revenue streams from things like advertising (showing ads inside the capsules and stations) and energy production (solar panels, footfall through stations and kinetic energy from the capsule as it passes through the tunnel).
“Hyperloop is a metro system,” he says. “It’s like a subway. You connect cities that are 400 miles apart with a very low ticket price. We want to make it something you use every day.”
Building a public transport system capable of reaching speeds that break the speed of sound is no mean feat, regardless of how simplistic Ahlborn tries to make it all sound.
“It has to be as similar as possible to an aeroplane,” he says. “From a technical point of view, we have propulsion levitation technology which has passed the prototype stage, we can build pylons, we can build tubes. We know we can create a low pressure environment in the tubes.”
Ahlborn is keen to stress he's not shirking on safety either. After all, a crash at the speeds being talked about would be fatal to all onboard.
“We’re giving a lot of attention to safety; it’s obviously very important. We have to overachieve on the international safety standards. We have safer systems than railways because human errors on railways create a lot of issues; we just had two big train accidents in the US for, example. It’s old infrastructures.”
Hyperloop is being designed so it can be used by anyone from two-year-old toddlers to 80-year-old pensioners. As a result, it needs to be a relatively comfortable ride but some critics have suggested that the high speeds will result in large forces being placed on passenger's body's as they travel on Hyperloop.
“If you have ever gone to America on a Boeing aeroplane then you’ve been over 1,000kmh,” says Ahlborn in Hyperloop's defence. “You don’t feel anything. What you do feel is acceleration, deceleration and lateral acceleration. So in curves, that’s a problem. We have 0.5G lateral and 1G the other way.”
By the sounds of it, curves and hills are going to be Hyperloop's worst enemy.
“In order to get to top speed, it has to be very straight with very little inclination. If you have curves you have to slow down so ideally we go as straight as possible,” says Ahlborn.
Ahlborn wants Hyperloop to run along as many freeways and as much publicly-owned land as possible. But what happens when that’s not possible, and a pylon has to be built in a farmer’s field or someone’s back garden?
“We’re thinking about what we can do in order to make it more attractive for someone to have a pylon on their land,” says Ahlborn, adding that ideas so far include: putting bee hives in the pylons; coating the pylons in air-cleaning cement; and developing vertical sky gardens.