Imagine you could travel from Montreal to Toronto in 30 minutes after buying a ticket to ride inside an aluminum pod that travelled at high speed inside a low-pressure tube.
That's the dream of Toronto startup Transpod, which has taken up the challenge posed by SpaceX founder and billionaire Elon Musk to design what he calls the "fifth mode of transportation."
Sebastien Gendron, founder of Transpod, says the company is working with the University of Toronto toward the goal of having a commercial prototype by 2020.
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"There is definitely a bit of research and development to do to succeed to reach those speeds. But clearly the physics is here today and clearly feasible," he told CBC's The Exchange.
In 2013, Musk outlined the Hyperloop concept, a super-fast, low-friction transportation system that would be an alternative to existing ways of travelling, with higher performance at lower overall cost. The pods would travel at speeds of 560 km/h or more.
Elon Musk starts design process
Musk wrote a concept paper on the technology and invited physicists, engineers, designers and students to work toward creating it.
Transpod, started in 2015, was one of the groups that took up the challenge, participating in a Texas A&M University forum in which students and others displayed their ideas.
Musk provided tutors to start, Gendron said, but the upshot of that forum was the Tesla founder decided to keep promoting student work on the project. A test facility is being built in Nevada to carry research further.
"As they considered us professional, after that event in Texas last January, we said we really need to work on the full-scale model and be able to propose something to the world and to Canada," Gendron said.
Prototype by September
Now his goal is to present the first concept model at InnoTrans, the world's largest rail show, which takes place in Berlin in September.
The concept is that people could ride between cities in pressurized aluminum pods with comfortable seating.
The pods would zip along in reduced-pressure tubes on an air cushion driven by linear induction motors and air compressors.
"The objective is to get a better customer experience than what you can experience on an airplane or a train. Something smooth, so people won't really feel a difference or feel like they're in a tube," Gendron said.
If Transpod perfects its prototype by September, it still has a couple of years of development before it has a commercial model, he said.
Musk envisages Hyperloop technology carrying people between cities at high speed throughout North America.
Gendron said he is seeking out financial backing and working out the business case for Hyperloop travel. One of the big advantages might be very low use of energy, though there would be large costs in building infrastructure.
The big step would be selling Canadians on a new system.
"We need to work with the politics in Canada to see how we can develop that line between Montreal and Toronto. So that's one of the challenges," he said.