Hyperloop the kind of high-minded sci-fi tech I can get behind

The Fresno BeeAugust 14, 2013 


A sketch shows the Hyperloop capsule with passengers. Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk on Monday unveiled a concept for a transport system he says would make the nearly 400-mile trip in half the time it takes an airplane.


I've seen the future and to tell you the truth, I'm a bit let down.

"The Jetsons" envisioned a world of flying cars and robot maids, but here we are in 2013, content to have a Roomba and a car that gets 60 mpg without looking like a toy.

We can't even get Marty McFly's self-tying sneakers quite right, though you can credit Nike for trying.

So when billionaire investor Elon Musk started talking about the Hyperloop transport system this week, I got excited.

Musk is the founder of PayPal, the electric car company Tesla Motors and SpaceX, which pioneered commercial space flight, and his ideas, even the far out ones, get noticed.

Musk has been talking about the Hyperloop system for a while, and on Twitter hinted at the project that could whisk commuters between Los Angeles and San Francisco at close to the speed of sound.

On Monday, he released a more detailed "alpha design" plan online. You can read the document at www.spacex.com.

If California were smart, state leaders would dump the high-speed rail project and put their energies behind the Hyperloop.

I'm not basing this on any logistical or economic reasons, though Musk has a breakdown of those online, including its cost. He estimates the loop could be built for $6 billion, about 1/10 of high-speed rail.

No, the state should get behind the project because the Hyperloop is the future.

I'm talking in the science-fiction, pop-culture sense of the word.

The Hyperloop is not new science, just a new idea of how to use it. The science is similar to that used in the pneumatic tubes at banks (and also, how the Jetsons got around their house). It challenges the very notions of what transportation can be. In the press, Musk has described the system as "a cross between a Concorde, a rail gun and an air hockey table."

The Hyperloop is sleek — you can't get much sleeker than a tube — and it's fast.

Estimates have it traveling at 700 mph and making the L.A. to S.F. trip in 35 minutes. The tubes would carry close to 30 passengers and depart from its station every 30 seconds.

It's picture-perfect for a science-fiction world.

Even it's name bubbles over with a sense of sci-fi wonder.

To be straight, high-speed rail is, at its best, old tech.

If it seems awe-inspiring or revolutionary it's only because it's not part of our everyday lives like it is in many other parts of the world.

Forget being on the cutting-edge with high-speed rail. We missed that boat when the first trains started running back in 1964. That's almost 50 years ago.

Don't mistake things. I am a proponent of high-speed rail, but mostly out a sense of duty. It will better serve the state than millions of cars and a series a crumbling roads.

But it has no pizzazz.

It's time we start thinking bigger.

All of our future tech — the stuff we were promised in science-fiction— seems focused on micro-processing and built for the sake of personal entertainment.

I own an iPhone and am fairly mind-blown by what it can do. Spoiler alert: It can do everything.

Maybe we need to rethink our priorities, because when it comes to serving larger issues, like creating sustainable public transportation, for example, our creative minds seem uninspired.

Musk himself questions on his website how the minds who "do incredible things like indexing all the world's knowledge and putting rovers on Mars," can "build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?"

It's a question worth thinking about.

I probably won't ever see a flying car, save for in movies and on cartoon reruns. I'll probably never strap myself into a tube to go careening at another city at 700 mph, either. The possibility of both are sci-fi fun and that's something I haven't felt in a while.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6479, jtehee@fresnobee.com or @Joshuatehee on Twitter. Rrad his blog at Fresnobeehive.com

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