Friday, August 16, 2013

Why not think about the Art of the Possible?

It has been a week to dream, yet again.     What I saw from the American Prospect speaks for itself:


There aren't many people who can say, "I think somebody should build this crazy futuristic technology," give only a rough sketch of what it would be, say that he's too busy to build it himself, and nevertheless touch off a media mini-frenzy of speculation. But Elon Musk, whatever his talents as a CEO and technologist, has in a few years achieved a unique status among corporate moguls, receiving endless glowing profiles and gee-whiz coverage of whatever his latest pet project might be. Not that he doesn't deserve a good deal of the praise—his Tesla Motors has, against heavy odds and most predictions, turned out to be a successful car company producing high-end electric cars that have won rave reviews from critics, and his SpaceX venture manages to send rockets into space and return them to Earth, no small feat.
Musk hinted a couple of months ago that he had an idea for a transportation system, called Hyperloop, that would hurl passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in half an hour (the trip takes five or six hours by car), and "intrigued" does not begin to describe the way people in the tech world reacted. One blog after another posted speculation, often including drawings and animation, about what the Hyperloop might be. Reporters waited with baited breath for details. And yesterday, Musk finally unveiled a proposal in the form of a 57-page document posted on the Tesla and SpaceX web sites. It would involve 28-passenger pods driven by electric motors, riding on a cushion of air through tubes with a near-vacuum state (but not a complete vacuum, since that's too hard to maintain). And the problem of the Kantrowitz limit is solved with the use of an air compressor at the front of each pod, but you probably already guessed that.
Musk says the Hyperloop would cost only $6 billion to construct and require only $20 for a one-way ticket, figures that seem almost comically optimistic. We at theProspect aren't engineers, so we can't say for sure what the technical pitfalls might be, but you can bet that once you start trying to buy up all the land you'd need to place the pylons on which the tubes sit, things are going to get complicated. That's what has happened with the California high-speed rail project, which will eventually travel at positively pokey speeds under 200 mph. The project has been bedeviled by wrangling over rights-of-way and landowners unwilling to sell, and it has been repeatedlydelayed.
Practical obstacles aside, the Hyperloop is an undeniably cool idea. So what if it never gets built? It doesn't hurt to dream.

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