When American entrepreneur Elon Musk first mused aloud about a transportation system that would whisk passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in half an hour, he touched off a frenzy of speculation, fundraising and organizing.
Musk called his idea a "hyperloop," and there were naysayers, of course. There always are.
But when some scientists said the idea might work, the engineers — the problem-solvers — stepped in.
Now, less than three years later, there are plans afoot for construction of not one, not two, but three test tracks.
In January, Musk said he would build a Hyperloop test track in Texas. Not long after, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, made up mostly of engineers working on the idea in their spare time, said it will build a five-mile test track in Central California. The company plans a public share offering later this year, expects to break ground on the test facility next year, and deliver a Hyperloop system sometime in 2018.
Then, late last month, the similarly named Hyperloop Technologies, announced that it has raised $8.5 million to build a test track. It wants to build a Hyperloop line between San Francisco and Las Vegas.
How successful any of these endeavours will be is an open question. A lot of money will be raised, and spent, and some construction companies will land attractive contracts for building the test facilities.
Musk's track record suggests that it would be foolish to bet against him.
He's a mover and shaker. He co-founded PayPal because he felt the banking industry needed to be shaken up. He sold that company to eBay, and used money to create Tesla Motors because the automotive industry seemed to be dragging its feet in developing electric cars. And he founded SpaceX, because he felt satellite launches, and the shuttle program that supported the International Space Station, were too expensive.
Now it's the transportation industry's turn. The high-speed rail network just begun in California is a politically charged project that is to cost $70 billion. Musk has suggested that the cost estimate is too low. The trains won't be convenient, he says, partly because of their route. Besides, he says, they'll be too slow.
His first public mention of the thing he called Hyperloop was in July 2012.
It will consist of pods, travelling in an elevated tube. Each pod would travel on a cushion of air, not wheels, and be propelled by a linear induction motor. As well as the motor, each pod would have a compressor to provide the cushion under a ski-like undercarriage.
The pods would achieve incredible speeds. The trip from Los Angles to San Francisco would take 35 minutes, meaning that passengers would cover the 570-kilometre route at an average speed of about 960 km/h, with a top speed of 1,220 km/h.
Power would be supplied by battery packs that are kept charged by solar arrays on station roofs.
The packs would provide solar energy at night, so the pods could run around the clock.
Musk believes the system could be built for $6 billion. Increase the tab to $7.5 billion and the system would accommodate cars as well. Drive into a pod and relax. In a few seconds the pod will be on its way to San Francisco.
It may all sound like science fiction, but remember, Musk has a record of success. He has some excellent engineers working for him at Tesla and SpaceX, and they have been working on the Hyperloop idea.
If he — or one of the other companies — solves the problems that go with every new idea, it could render obsolete any ideas we now have about what high-speed ground transportation systems should be.
And Hyperloop could turn out to be a dream project for a few construction and engineering companies.
Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.