Friday, November 16, 2012

Grokking the Hyperloop

I've made no secret of my "man-crush" on Elon Musk. As a former mechanical engineer, I view his engineering track record as nothing short of astonishing. From developing the best car in world to the first entirely non-government space rockets, Elon has set the bar for aspiring engineers. His latest brainstorm is on a new mode of transportation, which he refers to as the "hyperloop". There has been a lot of speculation about what the idea is, but most have settled on some form of train in a tube. I have my own pet theory though that I just had to publish before Elon sets us straight.

My thinking is a fairly natural extension of the electric car. I've already been advocating that to solve transportation issues we need to seriously consider redesigning how highways operate. I've had significant doubts regarding the viability of public transportation in a country like the United States. Public transportation is certainly the best solution for dense urban environments, but it quickly falls down as density declines. With hundreds of billions on the line for high speed trains, I can't help wonder if there is a better, more technology advanced solution.

I've modeled traffic some in the past and can now clearly show how with a mixed global and local optimization solution we could eliminate traffic on highways, ensuring the maximum throughput safely at all times. Taking these ideas a little further we approach my thoughts on the hyperloop. One of the main issues with electric cars is highway driving. It's both the place of least efficient driving and longest duration. What if to address the range issue with electric cars we just brought power to highways? While we're at it, why don't we get rid of rolling friction and deliver that power through rails? Similar to how those trucks used to service railroads can drop down wheels for travel on rails, we could have cars that deploy wheels on these new powered highway tracks. You could still have all the braking and accelerating benefits of rubber tires since you can just drop down and use them anytime they are needed.

Taking this one step further for long direct routes, these rail highways could be enclosed in a tube where the air is forced along at the global travel speed. Now we've eliminated both air drag and the rolling friction. This would allow electric cars to travel at much higher speeds all the while maintaining the efficiency of mass transportation. Now slap solar panels on top of the hyperloop and you have a completely self sufficient, rapid mode of transportation. I do have concerns with getting to the speeds Elon is after (faster than a jet), but I do think the overall simplicity and convenience would be time savings enough. Below is a crude sketch of my concept idea. Now we'll just have to see what Elon comes up with.