Skip to main content

Ride the Hyperloop before decade's end?

By Saurabh Amin, Special to CNN
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Tue August 13, 2013
The proposed Hyperloop high-speed transport system would ferry passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in about 30 minutes, according to entrepreneur Elon Musk. This sketch shows what a passenger capsule might look like. The proposed Hyperloop high-speed transport system would ferry passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in about 30 minutes, according to entrepreneur Elon Musk. This sketch shows what a passenger capsule might look like.
HIDE CAPTION
Hyperloop vs. the world's fastest trains
Hyperloop vs. the world's fastest trains
Hyperloop vs. the world's fastest trains
Hyperloop vs. the world's fastest trains
Hyperloop vs. the world's fastest trains
Hyperloop vs. the world's fastest trains
Hyperloop vs. the world's fastest trains
Hyperloop vs. the world's fastest trains
Hyperloop vs. the world's fastest trains
Hyperloop vs. the world's fastest trains
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In releasing details about the Hyperloop, Elon Musk said he welcomes feedback
  • Saurabh Amin: It's smart of Musk to open up the design process to the general public
  • He says historically, designing a mass transit system may take up a decade or more
  • Amin: Some of the major challenges will be to address the safety and security concerns

Editor's note: Saurabh Amin is an assistant professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at MIT.

(CNN) -- When Elon Musk released details of the Hyperloop -- a transportation system concept that could take people back and forth between San Francisco and Los Angeles at near sonic speeds in about 30 minutes -- he added, "feedback would be most welcome."

Musk already has the input of 1000 engineers from SpaceX and Tesla. So why would he need additional pointers? Why did he invite the world to chime in?

Historically, the planning and design of mass transit systems involved a team of experienced professionals working exclusively with those from other key stakeholder groups. The process may easily take up a decade before the final design is ready for approval.

But just as today's open source product designs on the Web have benefited and improved from the collective effort of programmers, so has Musk decided to confront the design bottleneck by opening up the design process to the general public -- anyone and everyone who cares. The Hyperloop is a $6 billion public infrastructure project that is as challenging as it is ambitious.

Opinion: Hyperloop could be a reality

Saurabh Amin
Saurabh Amin

The future of transportation may well lie in the hybridization of multiple technologies. The alpha version of the Hyperloop design published by Musk on Monday seems like a carefully engineered "lego" transit system with capsules supported on air bearings, the main tube placed on pylons and covered with solar arrays, and advanced propulsion systems.

These components have been or can be individually designed, and made to work as per specification under normal conditions. The difficult part is to make the system safe and efficient while accounting for all the possible contingency events that may arise.

The distance that separates any two adjacent capsules, called the headway, is a critical design parameter, and it will need to account for additional speed changes and halts that may occur during real operating conditions.

Smaller headways will require a capsule-to-capsule signaling system. If multiple stations are envisioned, sophisticated interlocking systems must be designed. These signaling and control systems open up a Pandora's box of safety and security concerns.

700-mph hyperloop plan unveiled
Entrepreneur may have a new way to travel

What if a computer hacker is able to bypass the signaling system? What if an attacker causes a severe collision by exploiting vulnerabilities of the electronics and communications equipment? The Hyperloop design will require built-in security and safety systems to address these scenarios.

Needless to say, the possibilities for improvements are endless. We've just embarked on a path that can bring together the visionary transportation engineers, architects, urban planners and information technology experts who are willing to collaborate on the design process and flesh out its flaws to make the dream of building the world's fastest and safest transit system a reality.

Already, the Hyperloop has provoked comparisons with the predominant modes of transport between the two megacities, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The SFO-LAX airline route is one of the busiest in the nation, serving around 2.8 million passengers per year. The flight time is about 80 minutes on good days. Airport security checks and loading/unloading times can easily double the actual travel time. We are looking at a door-to-door travel time of four to five hours after accounting for the time spent in navigating roads to the airport.

This is not a significant improvement over a travel time of about five hours and 30 minutes for navigating the I-5 highway by car from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The proposed California High Speed Rail hopes to achieve a travel time of two hours and 40 minutes, but this estimate should be scaled up to include the time to reach the transit station from the main residential and business areas.

For a fair comparison, Musk's travel time estimate of 30 minutes between San Francisco and Los Angeles must also be scaled up to include passenger loading/unloading times at the Hyperloop stations and the time to reach and navigate these stations. Still, if it is realized, it will be faster than plane, car, or high speed rail.

At the very least, we can hope that the Hyperloop design can guide the enhancements to existing modes of transport. Wouldn't it be cool if in the next three years, the SFO airport has the capability to transfer passengers from BART to security check points located close to aircraft boarding zones using a super fast capsule-tube-propulsion system?

Hyperloop, let's hope we can take a ride before the decade's end.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Saurabh Amin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT