Analysis: Elon Musk's most ambitious idea is taking one step closer to reality

By Brian Fung

Reporters in Las Vegas will soon get a peek at one of the key technologies that could eventually power the Hyperloop, a high-speed transportation concept initially devised by Elon Musk.

Proponents say the futuristic technology could ferry passengers or cargo at hundreds of miles an hour, covering the distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles in about half an hour, whereas it would normally take about six hours by car. And it could revolutionize the economy, enabling faster shipment of goods and cutting long commutes short.

A diagram showing how a Hyperloop transport system could work.
A diagram showing how a Hyperloop transport system could work.

If you're unfamiliar with the concept, it goes like this: Someday, you might be able to step into a kind of subway car that levitates on a small cushion of air. Then, when the car closes, all or most of the other air is taken out of the tunnel, reducing the drag and friction that would otherwise build up in front of the car, slowing you down as it traveled.

One of the most important parts of this notional machine is the electric motor that sucks excess air from the front of the car and transfers it to the rear.

In a test run lasting just a matter of seconds, Hyperloop Technologies - one of the leading groups competing to make Musk's open-sourced idea a reality - is expected to demo its linear electric motor, which will propel a rail-mounted train car roughly 1,500 feet down a track. According to Hyperloop Tech chief executive Rob Lloyd, the motor was custom-designed and tailored specifically for the project.

"The amount of energy it uses, the way we control the pulses, the copper coils, everything is unique," Lloyd said in an interview. "There's no other motor in the world that uses this amount of energy in an instant fashion, turning it on and turning it off."

Of course, the real Hyperloop won't have tracks at all. But as a proof of concept, Hyperloop Tech says the demo represents a taste of what's to come.

"This is a full scale component. This is the technology," Lloyd said.

Hyperloop Tech is one of several companies trying to build the first functional Hyperloop.

For instance, it's in a race against Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, which is doing its testing in California and on Monday unveiled its "passive levitation" technology, which allows the transportation pod to float only while it's moving, theoretically improving safety. (Hyperloop Tech runs its testbed in Nevada).

Conceding that the two companies are often confused for each other, Lloyd said that his firm will now be known as Hyperloop One.

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Hyperloop One said that GE Ventures, the venture capital arm of General Electric, will become an investor. Also investing is SNCF, France's state-owned rail company, which wants to study Hyperloop technology for applications in Europe.

"I anticipate building many Hyperloops in Europe," Lloyd said.

First, the company will have to pass its biggest test yet: producing a fully functioning demo by the end of the year that includes not just the motor, but also the tubes, levitation and the car that travels inside it.

No pressure. Literally.

- Washington Post

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