The future of travel? Daniel H. Wilson on the Hyperloop

The-Hyperloop.jpgAn image released by Tesla Motors shows a conceptual design rendering of the Hyperloop passenger transport capsule. (Tesla Motors/Associated Press)

First aired on Q (14/8/13)

This week, Elon Musk, the billionaire industrialist who has been likened to the comic book hero Iron Man, unveiled his plan to revolutionize inter-city transport. It's called the Hyperloop, and has the potential to cut travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco from more than five hours to 30 minutes.

Musk has a history of successful innovation, beginning with PayPal, the online financing service he co-founded. He then went on to create Tesla Motors, the leading manufacturer of electric cars. And his company SpaceX was the first to dock a private vessel at the international space station.

Musk's vision for a revamped transportation system might sound like something out of science fiction, but Daniel H. Wilson points out that dreaming big used to be a lot more common. In a recent conversation with Q guest host Stephen Quinn, the futurist and author of Where's My Jetpack? A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived among other books, talked about why there's been a decline in visionary projects of this kind, and what it would take to make the Hyperloop reality.

At this point, Musk's vision is not mapped out in detail. "You get the feeling that this is just a great idea that a really smart person threw together quickly," Wilson said. But he added that Musk is so influential "that now that he's thrown it out there, I'm hoping it will spur a lot more serious talk about the topic."

Wilson described the basics of the concept: "The idea is to build a low-pressure tube and have it run from San Francisco to L.A. right alongside the I-5 [highway] on elevated pylons and you put a passenger vehicle inside the tube."

Wilson admires the visionary nature of the Hyperloop, which he says harks back to an earlier era. "What he's looking at is definitely something more reminiscent of what we've seen from, like, 1964's World's Fair predictions where you're looking at something that's really breaking the mould."

Revolutionizing transportation has often been part of science fiction, so why haven't developments in the sector been more innovative? "I think it requires major infrastructure investment and it requires that a lot of people have to get on board and agree to spend a lot of money on something that they may not see a return on for many, many years," Wilson said, adding that cities get "paralysed with indecision" and spend years doing feasibility studies instead of actually building projects.

Wilson points to Musk's track record as a reason for optimism. "He specializes in things that are like nothing else," he said. "Here's a guy with companies that have actually broken the mould and done some new things."

Earlier eras tended to look toward the future with optimism, but "our vision definitely turned more dystopic in the last 30 or 40 years, and that's probably due to going to war and having those visions not come true in the way that we thought they would," Wilson said. For example, he pointed out that the jet pack was invented, but it turned out to be "incredibly dangerous."

Though Musk's sketch of the Hyperloop is preliminary, Wilson believes it's feasible "because it doesn't call for any technology that hasn't been invented already. It's really taking an amalgam of different technologies that already exist and putting them together in one package." But he did think the price tag would likely be more than the $6 billion suggested.

"The main difficulty of a project like this is the social will to do it," Wilson said. He's hoping that Musk can move forward with his visionary plans. "Even if we swing and miss I think it's important to constantly be trying new things and pushing boundaries."

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