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Hyperloop: Elon Musk imagines a tubular future of travel (+video)

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(Read caption) Hyperloop: Elon Musk envisions a tubular future of travel
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"I've got a hyperloop to catch."

That's a phrase you might hear sometime in the future, if you believe Elon Musk. The driving force behind Tesla Motors' luxury electric car and SpaceX's forays into private space travel is throwing his weight behind a "fifth mode of transport." The hyperloop, as he laid out in plans late Monday, would whisk travelers in pods at about the speed of sound through tubes to reach their destinations. 

It's not an entirely new idea, and Mr. Musk stresses that his plan is "extremely speculative." But if executed exactly as he envisions it, the hyperloop would offer a combination of high speed, low cost, and low emissions that would make planes, trains, automobiles, and boats look positively Stone Age.

"Short of figuring out real teleportation, which would of course be awesome (someone please do this)," Musk wrote in a 57-page proposal, "the only option for super fast travel is to build a tube over or under the ground that contains a special environment."

The basic concept is "a cross between a Concord and a rail gun and an air hockey table," as Musk described it at a conference in May. Columns of air would push passenger cars through special, low-pressure tubes at speeds greater than 600 mph. To reduce friction, the cars would levitate on a cushion of pressurized air. 

Solar panels would run along the top of tube to provide power, Musk writes, and excess energy would be stored in battery packs for operation at night and in cloudy weather. That means the hyperloop "can generate far in excess of the energy needed to operate." That would have dramatic consequences for a transportation sector that is second only to electric power in total US energy consumption. 

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