Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s latest madcap project

Think half Concorde, half magnetically-propelled canon

Flamethrowers, car tunnels, voyages to the Moon and innovative confectionery: Elon Musk is never short of far-fetched business ideas. But instead of keeping them for himself or sharing them with his teams, the Tesla CEO generally makes his ideas known to the whole world via Twitter, which he happens to be trying to buy the majority of shares in right now. But while the implementation of some of these projects may seem far off, others have come to fruition far more quickly than you might expect – especially when faced with so much scepticism and mockery. That’s the case of Hyperloop.

As is often the case with Elon Musk, it all started with an announcement. In 2012, it told a Californian newspaper how he intended to launch a mode of transport travelling at more than 1,000 km/hour thanks to capsules propelled in a vacuum tunnel. Never one to play down the significance of his ideas, the billionaire even added that it would be the fifth major type of public transport after the car, boat, plane and train.

Elon Musk’s objective in launching Hyperloop is pretty clear. He wants to make it possible to travel from any US city to another in less than an hour, and those in the rest of the world in just a little more. Hyperloop will supposedly be able to make this happen in a much less dangerous and polluting way than the car or plane. Yet more astonishingly, the Tesla boss has explained that it could even be self-sufficient on energy thanks to solar panels.

In 2013, a little less than a year after the initial announcements, the technology advanced that bit further when Elon Musk published a white paper. This freely accessible document contained diagrams, imagery and several technical details allowing interested businesses to start developing Hyperloop products. The Tesla boss didn’t want to make it all happen himself, but rather encourage new startups to help bring to life this new technology, conceived of as part-way between Concorde and a magnetically-propelled cannon. He did, however, add that he would take charge himself if no other entrepreneur were to invest in the Hyperloop.

Several businesses have responded to the demand and started projects that range from mere sketches to prototypes, abandoning their ideas in some cases after just a few months. Three of them have kept going: Virgin Hyperloop, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) and TransPod. After various tests which were widely reported in the media (and full of a lot of promise), the first firm announced in 2022, however, that it would be abandoning passenger transport to focus on a Hyperloop solely dedicated to freight, firing 111 employees in the process.

The two others, on the other hand, seem to be going ahead with their plans to carry humans in small propelled capsules, developing test centres all over several different countries, including France. That’s notably the case of TransPod, which has announced the launch of a technical hub and test track dedicated to its Hyperloop in the small commune of Droux, in the Haute-Vienne department. The inauguration of the vehicle is planned for September 2022.

Despite these advances, the implementation of a Hyperloop carrying passengers still seems pretty distant, due to several technical details that need to be resolved. To work the alignment of the tube in which the capsules travel must be perfect, right down to the millimetre, which isn’t simple at all. Moreover, the combined effects of the heat and speed can deform the capsule, which means materials specially designed for the Hyperloop must be used.

The ideas could, however, see its greatest strides yet thanks to the return of Elon Musk on board the Hyperloop bandwagon. Last April, the billionaire announced that his business would attempt to build a ‘functional Hyperloop’ that he thinks will be the quickest way to get from one city centre to the other. And the serial entrepreneur has one further card up his sleeve. While other businesses working in the same area aim to implement their Hyperloop systems on land, his will be underground (to protect it from storms). It’s an idea that, while making some degree of sense, could involve years of work and thousands of kilometres of tunnels having to be built all over the USA. Too bad for the solar panels on the roof, eh?

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