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The Hyperloop: What's Next for Elon Musk's 'Fifth Mode' of Transportation?

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It's not his Tesla electric car, it's a super-fast mass transit system, and he says he's ready to invest in it.

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It's faster than a speeding bullet train, and cheaper, too. It's a bit like Space Mountain at Disneyland, except that it can get you from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes. It would be virtually impossible to crash, and cost only $6 billion to build. A ticket might cost only $20.

All of the above hints had been used by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk to describe his "hyperloop" mass transit system. But as of Monday, anyone can read about it in far more detail in a document that Musk has posted on his Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) blog, as promised.

Musk, whose name is often preceded by the label "visionary," wants to stir interest in his concept for a low-cost, self-powering, super-high-speed rail service between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It would go 800 miles per hour, with stops along the way.

He has said he is seeking no patents, and is making the concept publicly available in order to advance the discussion and, hopefully, spur testing and prototyping of a working model.

Interestingly, during a phone press conference on Monday, he said a couple of things that make it sound as if he's not quite so willing to let go now, despite the fact that he's pretty fully booked running Tesla Motors and Space X, the private space exploration company he also co-founded.

In the phone conference, Musk said he would be willing to invest his own money in hyperloop development, and possibly his time, too: "Maybe I would just do the beginning bit, create a subscale version that is operating and then hand it over to someone else," he is quoted as saying.

He said the plans were developed by a team of a dozen engineers from Tesla and Space X, though they created it as a "background task" in addition to their usual jobs.

Based on his written description, the hyperloop would involve a low-pressure tube equipped with passenger "pods" that hover on a cushion of air. An electric compressor fan attached to the nose of the pod would push high-pressure air from the front to the rear of the vessel in order to propel the pod. An electric motor would be used to accelerate the pod to high speed, and to provide a periodic boost. In fact, that part works a bit like the motor on the Tesla Model S, according to the document.

Musk is not trying to test any new laws of physics, or invent any unique technology here, and he is not claiming to have done so. In fact, Wired.com says the basic notion has been around for 100 years, not to mention being featured in the animated series Futurama.

If you really want to understand the physics, Wired's article is for you.

He is throwing the concept out there-and putting his reputation on the line, as co-founder of PayPal (NASDAQ:EBAY), chairman, chief product architect and CEO of Tesla Motors, and CEO of SpaceX.

To some extent, the motivation appears to be embarrassment. As a Silicon Valley guy, Musk is disdainful of the plans for a high-speed rail service in California which he says will be one of the world's slowest bullet trains, despite an estimated construction cost of $69 billion.

Not to mention that it's going on 50 years since Japan introduced the first high-speed train. It has been 19 years since Britain and France cooperated long enough to complete the Chunnel, linking London and Paris in a two-hour journey. But still, the US has only a single leg of one service, Amtrak's Acela Express, which qualifies as high-speed. It apparently can travel 149 miles per hour along a stretch through Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

So, it would indeed be an advance to build a system that could go 800 miles per hour and cost an estimated $6 billion. (It would be elevated, thus requiring less purchase of private land along the route.)

So, where does all this go from here? Probably nowhere, unless Musk keeps pushing the discussion long enough to move the proposal to the next stage. That will probably take more than one entrepreneur, and more than one billionaire.

See also:

Samsung and Apple Inc. Vs. the Commoditization of the Smartphone

The Next iPhone, Tesla Motor's Elon Musk on Hyperloop, and Market Reaction to BlackBerry Sale Talk

Three Late-Year Catalysts for Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft
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No positions in stocks mentioned.
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