In a series on CA high speed rail published earlier this year (here, here and here), I ended with a whisper echoing the whisper to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.  Plastics… plastics!  I said that ETT (evacuated tube transport) was the plastics of a coming revolution in transportation.  Apparently, Elon Musk agrees.  Now the whisper is… Hyperloop.  And Musk’s Hyperloop makes  ETT a very big deal indeed.

A coordinated, well-resourced and well thought out political plan to bring California’s out-of-control HSR system to a screeching halt in 2014 is now possible… because Musk’s Hyperloop is sexy and because Musk has the entrepreneurial clout as a self made tech billionaire to sound the clarion.  The recent anti-HSR ruling by Judge Kenny jams the pedal to the floor.

A conservative, GOP lead assault on CAHSRA (California High Speed Rail Authority)  could end the program for an alternative Hyperloop.  This cannot be accomplished within the framework of a “drown the government in the bathtub” ideology.  Nor can it be accomplished from a pure Ayn Randian libertarian ideology.  It can only be accomplished from a Lincolnesqe, Eisenhowesque and Reaganesque perspective by committed political realists willing to build coalitions.

In Part 2 of this ETT series, I will examine Elon Musk and Hyperloop in detail.  In Part 3, I will sketch a CAGOP-lead broad base coalition and a 2014 ballot initiative to defund CAHSRA and put a portion of the the $10 billion funding into Hyperloop.  But first, a short backgrounder on ETT and competitive systems.

Evacuated Tube Transport (ETT): Fast, cheap and green.

Musk’s Hyperloop is a catchy name for one particular flavor of the ETT concept that has had historical-technical legs because the underlying physics and mechanics are so robust and promising.  The basic concept is simple: a bullet in a vacuum tube can go very fast at very low energy cost in a highly environmentally friendly way.  How fast?  How cheap?  How green?  It depends…

Speed depends on how big the bullet-pod (in cross section, the bullet can be as long as you want.)  It depends on the vacuum (less vacuum equals higher air resistance, more vacuum equals less air and greater speed.  In the perfect vacuum of space, infinite speed is possible.)  And it depends on how straight the tube (straighter is faster because humans can deal with only so much sideways G-force on curves.)

Musk’s Hyperloop is a 700 MPH bullet in a very narrow tube.  His tubes are above ground on pylons.  He uses an industrial Mars-level vacuum, not a super-high space vacuum which is expensive and difficult to maintain.

How little energy and how green?  Very little energy compared to trains, planes and autos.   And very, very green in Musk’s solar cell powered version.

Who are the ETT precursors?

ETT has precursors going back to the late-1800s.  The Crystal Palace Pneumatic Railway (1864-65, London), the Beach Pneumatic Subway,  (NYC 1870s, funded, legislated, vetoed), the Prague Pneumatic Post, (1889-1990s) were early ETT systems.

Robert Goddard, the American inventor-engineer who developed the multi-stage, liquid fuel rockets, gyroscopic control and steerable thrust also patented an early ETT.  A polymath, Goddard also developed the first anti-tank bazooka, the first vacuum tube amplifier, naval torpedoes, solar power and was awarded a total of 214 patents.  A NY Times article savaging Goddard’s proposal to shoot a rocket to the moon is reminiscent of press critiques of Elon Musk.  The US Army ignored Goddard’s rockets pre WW2, till German V2s with Goddards designs began landing on England.

ETT post 1970s

Robert M. Salter, PhD, at the Rand Corporation wrote two 1970s ETT white papers (here and here).  He called for large diameter tubes in deep underground tunnels impervious to weather and terrorists with no right-of-way or eminent domain legal issues.   Salter’s bullet pods would shoot passengers from LA to NYC in a space level vacuum at speeds of thousands of miles per hour in far larger trains than Musk.  The cross continental trip would take 45 minutes.  But Dr. Salter and Rand Corp. never trial-ballooned the cost with precision.  The cost of tunneling and super-vacuums may be prohibitive, according to Musk, “You’d have to make tunneling 100 times cheaper.”

From the early 1990s to mid 2000s the Swissmetro system was a PPP (private public partnership) that went from concept and almost to construction till a contested academic study chopped it off at the knees as cost prohibitive.  Political will was absent, despite widespread public support and politicians on the oversight boards.  Swissmetro was a tunneling project with a large diameter bore and maglev making it very costly.

In the 1990s, Ernst Frankel and a team at MIT achieved 580 mph in an ETT proof of concept system. Frankel said, “We built a half mile long tube at the playing fields of MIT, evacuated it, and then shot things through it in order to measure what sort of velocities we could obtain. We started with ping pong balls, and then went to mechanical models.”

In China at the Southwest Jiotong University Labs (here and here), ETT is under development.  The researchers say, “operational in 10 years.”   In 2011 Jiaotong tested a maglev ETT prototype at Musk’s projected 700 MPH, breaking a speed record.  This proof of concept is compelling.

Who else is working the ETT idea?

In the USA, Daryl Oster, the founder and CEO of ET3 has a “patent” on ETT technology.  Oster has trademarked the phrase, “Space Travel on Earth,” and is peddling “licenses” for $100 to $5000.  He gets press from biz mag reporters too lazy to vet past a cursory Google search but seems essentially a one-man-show who has taken basic concepts and repurposed them.

Also in the USA, Arnold R. Miller, PhD (mathematics) —another lone, entrepreneurial technologist—has published concept papers for a version of ETT.  Instead of a vacuum, he suggests low mass, low friction hydrogen gas in the tube.  Inert Helium would be better but is in too short supply.  Miller wants to use a fuel cell or turbofan to power his pods.  See here, here and here.  His ideas are worth a careful engineering review but he’s also a one-man-show.

Hyperloop is the best ETT plan yet.

Despite competitors who run the gamut from serious, well funded academics and PPPs to tin-foil hat dreamers, Musk’s Hyperloop system is arguably the best conceptual plan yet in the long history of ETT.  Musk’s business modus operendi is to disrupt high cost bureaucracy bound systems and create economically efficient alternatives.  As the founder of PayPal who cashed out and built three world class hardware businesses—Solar City, Tesla and SpaceX— Musk has both the technical and economic chops to front a California-based ETT system.

His M.O.?  SpaceX has taken a lion’s share of sat-launch business away from competitors on aggressive cost cutting.  Tesla Motors first built a high cost, low production sports cars, then a mid cost, mid production SUV and will soon launch a low cost, high volume sedan.  And Solar City aims to put panels of the rooftops of millions of homes on efficiency and price point.

Hyperloop is in the same mold.

Hyperloop is about elegant engineering tradeoffs to keep costs low.  Musk puts solar panels on top of his tubes for the coup-de-grace, free electricity to run the system.

But Musk needs help.  He has publicly stated he is too busy to do Hyperloop.  His clarion call is to geek techies, venture capitalists, and to the entrepreneurial political class, if political visionaries still exist in California post Ronald Reagan.

It’s going to take a frame larger than a private corporate enterprise to shut down the boondoggle CAHSRA and replace it with a visionary Hyperloop.  It will require a plan, resources and a broad political coalition to execute.

The upside potential is gigantic.