Elon Musk clearly loves Texas. Sure, he may have decided against building his Gigafactory in the Lone Star state—instead planting his massive, $5 billion factory for Tesla car batteries (and the up to 22,000 jobs that come with it) in Reno. But if you’re down in Brownsville (or if you go to any number of bars or restaurants on South Padre Island with “Welcome SpaceX!” signs on their doors), you’ll notice that people can’t stop talking about the SpaceX launch facility heading to the Valley. And now, there’s also the Hyperloop.
Musk was in Austin on Thursday, speaking at the Capitol to reporters and some of the devoted fans who follow the zillionaire inventor’s every move, about his future plans. Primarily, those seem focused on lobbying the legislature to change laws that restrict him from selling his Tesla Motors vehicles directly to the public in Texas. Right now, if you visit a Tesla showroom here, staff is restricted from answering certain questions, like pricing. But you can order a car online from a computer in the building or make plans to go pick your new Tesla up in California and drive it back through the desert. But yesterday, Musk brought up his most ambitious invention, the hyperloop: a transportation system for humans using a pneumatic tube like the ones that suck up your checks at the bank drive-thru. It would allow for speeds more than twice as fast as the fastest trains, and 200mph faster than an airplane. In 2012, he had offered the plans to it for free, without a patent, to anyone who wanted it, but had expressed no intention to actually build the thing himself—until Thursday, when he suggested that a 5-mile test loop, traveling at speeds of up to 760 mph, might be built right here in Texas.
“In order to kind of help things along, we’re going to create a Hyperloop test track,” Musk told Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith during an interview at the Texas Transportation Forum, an annual conference hosted by the Texas Department of Transportation. “Something that’s maybe on the order of a five-mile loop.” […]
During Thursday’s interview, Musk said the facility would be privately funded and not require the kind of incentives that his private space firm, SpaceX, received to develop a test facility in Texas.
“We’re not asking for any money from the state,” Musk said.
The idea for the test facility is apparently in the very early stages as Musk said that “it sounded good last night after a couple of drinks.” He explained that he envisioned the track as allowing for “teams of students” and companies interested in developing the Hyperloop concept to test out different pod systems.
A five-mile test track isn’t the same thing as a functional Hyperloop—the design is made for long distances, not short ones—but Musk would still be paying people to build the track, and presumably transportation nerds from around the world would travel to Texas to gawk at it, which wouldn’t hurt the local economy of wherever-it-is that he builds it.
The ultimate idea of the Hyperloop, of course, is that it can go really friggin’ fast—faster than a plane, faster than high-speed rail, faster than a magnetic-levitation train. (On a non-stop trip, it would be able to get you from Austin to Chicago in a little more than half the time it takes to do it on an airplane.) The vision for it is to cover long distances very quickly (the longer the trip, the more efficient Hyperloop becomes), which makes the five-mile version very much just a proof-of-concept. But the idea of a realistic Hyperloop system that could traverse the country isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds: There’s a group out of California of visionary, idealistic science homies that have recruited over 100 engineers, with some legit resources, to figure out how to make it a reality.
That group—Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Inc.—was looking to get started even before Musk announced his intentions to get involved in the Hyperloop business. And they have a pretty compelling argument for why they’re doing this:
The Hyper-Loop is an entirely new mode of transportation that eliminates all travel complications and objections due to cost, travel time and weather conditions!
Completely self sufficient, solar panels placed along the track produce excess amounts of the energy that is actually required to run the system.
The climate controlled capsule travels inside of a reinforced ‘tube’ pathway, rendering the Hyper-Loop weather independent and earth quake safe thanks to the use of pylons.
The construction costs are much lower than any existing, and yet proposed railway projects. It utilizes existing infrastructure thanks to the use of these pylons and has reduced land acquisition costs as well.
These reduced costs translate directly into cheaper ticket prices, therefore changing the way we travel and ultimately the way that we all get to live and enjoy our lives! With such affordable fares, an individual could easily live in one city and work in another. This is not only a solution for affordable housing and corporate commute, but will also boost personal and social lives as well as economical development.
It all sounds fairly utopian—and, who knows, Musk is an ambitious enough weirdo (he intends to die on Mars) that, if he’s getting involved, it could come to pass.
A sample map from HTT, Inc offers a glimpse of how it might work (L.A. to Houston in three stops! Austin to Chicago in five! Dallas to New York in seven!) and where it might go.
All of this is very, very, very tentative—Wired estimates that we’re at least a decade away from a functional Hyperloop, and that’s a best-case-scenario—but it all starts with a test track, which means that it all starts right here in Texas.