Inside Elon Musk’s Transportation Revolution

Real change is rare, so too are those innovators who come up with ideas that change the status quo. One such is Elon Musk.

 

Musk looks at various aspects of our modern society’s technology and asks himself: How can this be done better?

Many of the technologies of today have their roots in inventions and ideas developed more than a century ago. Many, such as the motor car, would be easily recognisable to those who drove vehicles with four wheels and an engine 100 years ago.

This ingenious entrepreneur’s approach adopts one of the first principles of
innovative thinking: Actively question everything you think you “know” about a given problem or scenario, and then create new solutions from scratch to fit such a problem or scenario.

Musk looks at various aspects of our modern society’s technology and asks himself: How can this be done better? He has applied this technique to both the energy and the environment sectors, and come up with completely new solutions. One area where his innovative thinking and ideas have had a huge impact is in the transportation sector.

HYPERLOOP

In 2013, Elon Musk published a 58-page technical paper outlining the design of Hyperloop, a transportation system he has described as a cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table. Musk first mentioned he was thinking about a concept for a "fifth mode of transport, calling it the Hyperloop, in July 2012, at an event in Santa Monica, California.

He led the process of bringing it to life by setting up a challenge, presenting his paper with the following words: “Hyperloop is considered an open-source
transportation concept. The authors encourage all members of the community to contribute to the Hyperloop design process. Iteration of the design by various individuals and groups can help bring Hyperloop from an idea to a reality.”

Musk’s notion of building a super-fast alternative to passenger trains, propelling capsules or “pods” by magnetic levitation (maglev) through a series of low-pressure tubes was based on studies dating back at least a century.

It was first proposed by US rocket pioneer Robert Goddard in 1904. Earlier, in 1845, innovative British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel had proposed building a tube in southwest England that could propel trains to the then dizzying speed of 70mph (110 km/h). The project proved unfeasible and was abandoned because the material and technology required to sustain it were not available at the time.

In his 2013 paper, Musk suggested that his hypothetical high-speed mode of
transportation would have the following characteristics: Immunity to weather; collision free; twice the speed of a plane; low power consumption; and, energy storage for 24-hour operation. The name Hyperloop was chosen because it would travel in a loop. Musk envisioned that the more advanced versions would be able to reach hypersonic speeds.

From late 2012 until August 2013, a group of engineers from Musk’s companies Tesla and SpaceX worked on the conceptual modelling of Hyperloop. An early system proposal was published in the companies’ blogs, outlining one potential design, how it would function, the tube pathway and the estimated cost of the system.

According to this alpha design, pods would accelerate to cruising speed gradually, using a linear electric motor. They would glide above a track on air bearings, through tubes mounted above the ground on columns, or below ground in tunnels to avoid the dangers of grade crossings. The ideal Hyperloop system would be more energy- efficient, quiet and autonomous than existing modes of mass transit.

In June 2015, SpaceX announced that it would build a one-mile long (1.6km) test track, to be located next to SpaceX’s Hawthorne facility in California. The track would be used to test pod designs supplied by third parties in a competition.

The MIT Hyperloop team developed the first Hyperloop pod prototype, which they unveiled at the MIT Museum on May 13, 2016. Their design used electrodynamic suspension for levitating.

On January 29, 2017, about a year after phase one of the Hyperloop pod
competition, the MIT Hyperloop pod demonstrated the first-ever low-pressure Hyperloop run in the world. The Delft University team from the Netherlands achieved the highest overall competition score, winning the prize for "best overall design". The award for the "fastest pod" was won by the team WARR Hyperloop, from the Technical University of Munich (TUM), Germany. The team from the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT) placed third overall in the competition, judged by SpaceX engineers.

In the period between 2013 and 2020, a handful of companies – including Virgin Hyperloop and Zeleros – started developing a Hyperloop from Musk’s designs.

On November 8, 2020, transportation history was made in the Nevada Desert, where Virgin Hyperloop (a variant of Musk’s Hyperloop) tested human travel in a Hyperloop pod for the first time. Josh Giegel, co-founder and chief technology officer, together with Sara Luchian, director of passenger experience, were the first people in the world to ride this new form of transportation. The test took place at Virgin Hyperloop’s 500-metre DevLoop test site in Las Vegas.

Virgin Hyperloop is the only company in the world (at the time of writing) that has successfully tested Hyperloop technology with passengers, launching the first new mode of mass transportation in over a century. The company successfully operated an occupied Hyperloop vehicle using electric propulsion and electromagnetic levitation under near-vacuum conditions, realising a fundamentally new form of transportation that is faster, safer, cheaper and more sustainable than existing modes. The company is now working with governments, partners and investors around the world to make Hyperloop a reality in years, not decades.

Indirectly, Musk has contributed to the creation and launching of the first new mode of mass transportation in over 100 years. Doing so has also indirectly created the Hyperloop technology market.

According to a recent market research report, published by MarketsandMarkets™, with the somewhat cumbersome title Hyperloop Technology Market with COVID-19 impact by Transportation System (Capsule, Guideway, Propulsion System, and Route), Carriage Type (Passenger, and Freight), Speed (Less than 700 kmph, and More than 700 kmph), and Region – Global Forecast to 2026, published by, the
market is expected to grow from US1.2 billion in 2021, to US6.6 billion by 2026, at a compound annual growth rate of 40.4%.

The major factors driving the growth of the Hyperloop Technology market are decreased travel time and transport costs; less expensive and minimum
infrastructural maintenance; less land area required in the creation of a Hyperloop network; tolerance to earthquakes and other natural calamities; and, the emphasis on solar power for energy consumption in the Hyperloop transportation technology. This Hyperloop is just one example of a contribution by Musk in the transportation sector that is busy taking off.

THE BORING COMPANY

Another contribution is far from what this company’s name might suggest. The Boring Company (TBC), founded by Musk in 2016, is currently (at the time of writing) shuttling passengers on test runs through twin tunnels it has built under the Las Vegas Convention Centre (LVCC). It aims to transport 4 400 people an hour – using Tesla electric cars – through the LVCC loop tunnel system. While TBC plans to do this at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour (240km/h) with the Tesla cars driving themselves, it has kept speeds much lower during the test, for the foreseeable future, at least, because the system relies on human drivers.

The company’s future plans are to build a tunnel system under the whole city,
including the renowned Las Vegas Strip and the city’s airport. TBC claims such a massively scaled-up version of its underground highway will be able to handle more than 50 000 passengers an hour.

SPACEX

Musk’s visions for the future of transportation extends beyond Earth. In May this year, another Musk company, SpaceX, achieved a significant milestone when a booster used on one of its Falcon 9 rockets completed its 10th mission. The ability to reuse launch vehicles has been at the heart of the company’s recent successes, and it seems others are starting to take note.

For decades, space rockets have been a single-use technology, left to burn up in the atmosphere once their mission is done. While a single-use approach might make sense for packaging material, it would seem a crazy proposition to do the same with a highly-engineered, multi-million-dollar piece of equipment. Trying to change that has been a core plank of SpaceX’s mission to slash the cost of spaceflight.

After a few dramatic failures, the company finally managed to land one of its rocket boosters in 2015, followed by the first reuse in 2017. Since then, the landing and reuse of the Falcon 9 boosters has become standard practice for the company.

In 2018, Musk set a goal of flying each rocket 10 times before having to carry out serious maintenance. On May 9, SpaceX hit that target when its B1051 booster landed safely after completing its 10th flight. The only rocket vehicles that have made more space flights than this are the NASA space shuttles Discovery, Atlantis, Columbia and Endeavour.

While the number of launches the company has made is notable, it’s the speed at which it has reached this total that is really striking. While Discovery has an impressive lead with a total of 39 missions, NASA built that up over a period of 27 years; SpaceX’s booster hit 10 missions in just 26 months.

Further, the company was only one launch shy of the total number of missions flown by all rockets from its main competitor, United Launch Alliance.

What’s more, B1052 isn’t the only Falcon 9 booster racking up missions. Booster B1049 is only one launch behind B1051, and between the two of them, the pair have delivered nearly half of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation to orbit.

How far such reusability can go is anyone’s guess. SpaceX says it plans to test
some of its rockets to destruction to see what the upper limit might be Last year, Musk suggested it may be possible, with some replacement or upgrade of parts, to push the boosters past 100 missions.

The name Hyperloop was chosen because it would travel in a loop. Musk envisioned that the more advanced versions would be able to reach hypersonic speeds.

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