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Could the Hyperloop really be Safe?

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It’s a high-speed transportation system that might revolutionize travel by shooting passengers through a tube. Designers say the Hyperloop could take commuters from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes, but at what potential dangers?

Elon Musk is a cool guy, and more than that he is one of the greatest minds of this generation. His ideas are brilliant and unimaginably profitable, he’s demonstrated the grit to put his billions where his mouth is on alternative energy and transportation ideas, and he’s even partnered in a private space program.

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So when Musk says he has sorted out California’s, and potentially the entire world’s commuter traffic problems people tend to sit up and take notice. But, is his latest idea more than even he (and all his dollars) could pull off?

The Hyperloop in Brief

The Hyperloop is Musk’s future is the now solution to connecting nearby urban areas with mind-bendingly fast ground-based public transport. And since he is doubtlessly a better/smarter/bolder engineer and entrepreneur that this author, the dreamer in me wants to believe it’s true.

Throwing down the gauntlet that Musk’s Hyperloop will be faster, safer, and cheaper than any other current form of existing mass transit is a bold claim and could be construed as reason enough to build it. Then, there are the claims that it will be non-disruptive, weather-resistant, more convenient, earthquake-proof, and sustainably self-powered – which could put it on a short list of greatest inventions the world has ever seen, and certainly head and shoulders above all of his other accomplishments to date in terms of potential value to humanity.

So, as food for thought (and I’m virtually guaranteeing attack by commenters who will say I’m “the biggest problem that is wrong with America/the world today” and “a shortsighted moron with his head buried in the sand to avoid the ever intensifying sun of our warming planet” or worse), I have a few questions. So bring on the hater comments.

Firstly…

We still need to look at this solution for what it is – a concept. And while there is substantial evidence that Musk’s budget is ridiculously low, the budget claims are really irrelevant since the already underway conventional fast train that he derided will likely cost exponentially more…if it’s ever completed.

What I, and likely plenty of other people, really want to know is: will the Hyperloop be safe? Is it even possible to build in this lifetime? Will it look anywhere near as awesome as the Star Wars-esque shuttle/capsule rendering that’s shown online?

Can It Really Be As Safe As Projected?

The initial sketches and white-paper study released on Musk’s Tesla Motors blog all seem initially very well thought out and fairly convincing and all 57 pages read like a foregone conclusion. As a result the web community has erupted with an overwhelming “build this now!” response.

But along with developing the propulsion system (the linear motors, at least) that will be needed to power this tube-trapped mega-speed people-mover, will new technology need to be invented to keep us safe as well? Any thoughts Mr. Musk?

Speed  – Not a Concern

Claims by naysayers that the passengers bodies’ will be crushed into oozing bags of moosh under the “massive g-loads” that the Hyperloop transport vehicle would generate are easily dismissible, since the guesstimated top speed of 800 mph doesn’t have to be achieved by massive thrust like one of Musk’s reusable payload rockets. Instead, since his “fifth form of transport” (counting automobiles, trains, air and boats as the other four) is primarily horizontal, it can be slowly brought up to speed similar to how a conventional high-speed passenger train accelerates and decelerates. So acceleration is not a concern.

Braking

As discussed in the Hyperloop Alpha document, emergency braking would be implemented in the case of a sudden shuttle or tube failure, and while calculated deceleration from 800 mph down to a dead stop is only about -1.2 gs, the human response time for passengers still presents a problem. For example: when red emergency lights start flashing, passengers watching a video on their iPad or reading a book will not be likely to panic or assume brace positions quickly.

Plus, assuming the brakes will be hybrid, using the electric motors to create wind resistance along with standard friction brakes on emergency wheels, it still seems pretty difficult to effect all of these emergency systems instantaneously, which would be critical when the vehicle is operating at full speed, and lost seconds are very precious at these velocities .I’m not saying it can’t be done, but we definitely need more information.

Pylons and Road Traffic

The idea of using existing highway right-of-way to construct the pylon-mounted tubes that the Hyperloop could travel along is hardly new, and at first sounds like a smart repurposing of existing government assets. But, for the same reason that it was shot down in Georgia as a concept for a light passenger rail to connect Atlanta and Athens, the idea of using pylons is critically flawed.

Cars and (more worryingly) large trucks tend to use highways like I-5 and I-580 quite often, and in those vehicles are humans who make mistakes, such as falling asleep and crashing into pylons placed near roadways. A failed pylon would not mean turning the in-transit Hyperloop vehicle into a missile filled with passengers like the movies would have us believe, but it would likely put the system out of commission for a while, which would be catastrophic to commuters and businesses that rely on it.

Air Leaks

A minor caveat to large low pressure systems like the tube the Hyperloop would use is that they tend to be pretty hard to keep perfectly sealed. A small air leak could create a massive “air speed bump,” potentially causing sudden massive deceleration (similar to doing a belly flop into a swimming pool from a high diving platform). Uncomfortable for passengers at best, and potentially deadly at near-supersonic speeds at worst.

Terrorism

This is the subject that no one wants to think about, but terrorist attacks are a major concern for a transit system as vulnerable as the Hyperloop would be. Of course, death tolls would not be exceptionally high, but a single bomb or rocket could completely stop the Hyperloop’s service for days or weeks. This would have the same recurring economic consequences due to delayed and canceled travel plans as a pylon failure. And the effects would be much further reaching if the larger freight-capable system were to be implemented.

Mr. Musk asked for critical input on the subject. I am not attacking the Hyperloop; I avidly promote the idea of usable, energy efficient and carbon-free transport and have done work in both transit and solar energy industries in the past. It just seems like this idea still needs attention.

So, come on smart people! Let’s get open sourcing. If the entire internet blossomed on the invention of a single free, shared platform that was “perfected” within a few years, then surely sorting out the Hyperloop is within our capabilities.

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