It’s been said that Robert Downey, Jr. patterned his Tony Stark/Iron Man persona after Elon Musk. Musk, if you’re not aware, was the inventor of Paypal and founder of Tesla Motors. He’s also spending most of his time these days with Space X, trying to revolutionize how people and cargo are transported to space. In short, he’s got genius to spare.
So it should come as no surprise that Musk scribbled out some thoughts on the future of mass transportation, pretty much on a cocktail napkin, and is turning the reins over to others to see it through (for now). His concept is called the Hyperloop. Essentially, it is a high speed train in which passengers are sent through an aboveground pipeline at nigh speed of sound (750 mph). His frustration with the California highways and mass transit system led to this idea, in which you could theoretically get from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes — it currently takes 6 hours without traffic, which does not exist in California.
The technology is that the passenger tube within the exterior tube will be propelled by magnets and will be propelled by floating on air. If any of this sounds vaguely familiar to you, it should because Pittsburgh was swept up by the concept of Maglev at the turn of the 21st century. Maglev, short for magnetic levitation, was a more standard looking train that would be guided on tracks by magnets. It was also said to float on a cushion of air. Pittsburgh was the winning test case for a Maglev test track back in the late 1990’s. The 54-mile long test track would have connected Pittsburgh International Airport to downtown Pittsburgh to Monroeville to Greensburg. As of 2003, the cost was said to be $3.8 billion.
The environmental impact statements take forever to obtain, but they were back in 2010. However, the company that was spearheading the project, Maglev, Inc. in Greensburg, filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and all of the little remaining steam for this project went out the door with them. People haven’t seriously been discussing Maglev, at least in my circles and the general population, since probably 2005.
But times change and a much more well-funded supporter is backing this form of magnetic levitation, now with a cooler name, too! His company dedicated to this venture, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, just pulled permits to construct a 5-mile long test track around a town in California called Quay Valley. Construction will take 1-2 years with the first test rides scheduled for 2018, albeit at much slower speeds of 200 mph considering it is only five miles long.
If all goes well, perhaps one day a Hyperloop between L.A. and San Fran will become a reality. Musk has projected the cost for that project to be $8 billion dollars, so you can expect that number to at least double as with all construction projects nowadays. If Hyperloop is successful, it will be the first true sign of the creation of a megalopolis, where two cities will eventually blend together. Imagine a Pittsburgh-Cleveland Hyperloop project that could put you in downtown Cleveland for a business meeting or a sporting event in 15 minutes or less. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a separate parallel Hyperloop for cargo, as well. It would revolutionize how we think of cities and planning for transportation.
But first, we must see how it does on a dusty tract of land called Quay Valley. After all, we were supposed to have Maglev in Pittsburgh by now.