a company called Hyperloop One made history. Nearly four years to the day after Elon Musk first published his plans for the system, the company set a new hyperloop speed record, logging nearly 200 mph on their test track outside Las Vegas. It’s an impressive achievement by any measure, but it’s particularly impressive given how implausible the project originally seemed. When Elon Musk first announced his plans, few observers would have predicted that a workable prototype would emerge within four years — particularly one developed without Musk’s direct involvement.
Hyperloop One still faces significant challenges as an actual business venture, but it’s worth appreciating how much it’s achieved so far. The company has successfully brought hyperloop technology from a woolly thought experiment into a viable prototype that can do almost everything Musk described four years ago.
If you compare the existing systems against Musk’s original specifications, you can see a number of compromises. Each one is understandable, maybe even inevitable, but they add up to a significant change from what Musk originally proposed. As the hyperloop has come down to earth, it’s lost some of its luster, becoming more like a faster, lighter train. And in the process, it’s raised serious questions about how much of an advantage it will have over existing transit methods.
IT’S THE SIZE OF A TRAIN
The initial craft envisioned by Musk was the size of a bobsled, carrying three passengers in single file with almost no room to spare. This was a crucial element of the spec, allowing the tube to lay over a series of concrete pylons with minimal footprint, hopping over mountains, and even running up the median of I-10. This was always a long shot, but it let Musk plot a straighter course, imagining hyperloops where a highway or railway track would be impossible.
Hyperloop One’s design has had to scale back that idea. With the tubes at 11 feet in diameter, it’s closer in size to the cargo version laid out in the initial Musk spec, along the lines of a small train car or bus. The track used in today’s test is on simple embankments, and while Hyperloop One imagines it eventually being elevated on top of pylons, they’ll be far larger than the narrow columns initially proposed by Musk.
It’s easy to understand why Hyperloop One made the shift. It would be difficult to load a small three-person craft efficiently, and with all the passengers headed to the same destination, there’s little to be gained by transporting separate crafts. The simple claustrophobia of a coffin-sized shuttle might have been too much for some passengers. Still, the result is a transportation system roughly on the scale of a train or highway, without the disruptive potential of a smaller and lighter tube.