Skip to main content

Ride the Hyperloop before decade's end?

By Saurabh Amin, Special to CNN
August 13, 2013 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT