Elon Musk's hyperloop finally unveiled for bumpy test rides in Los Angeles

The public finally saw the Boring Company's Los Angeles hyperloop tunnel this week, but questions about the potential of this transportation system remain.

Elon Musk's hyperloop unveiling was pushed back again. Is the technology actually viable?

On Tuesday evening, Elon Musk's hyperloop venture The Boring Company unveiled its first underground transportation tunnel in Los Angeles, inviting reporters and guests to take the first rides, the AP reported.

The reveal came after the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, and The Boring Company had pushed it back a week.

Riders boarded a Tesla Model S to a station in a residential neighborhood, and the car entered a wall-less elevator that took it underground to the tunnel. The car hooked into a track, and traveled at a demo speed of 40 mph, though Musk said that the future system will allow for speeds of up to 150 mph. The first rides were bumpy, the AP reported, giving one reporter motion sickness. But Musk said the future system will be "smooth as glass," and that this version is just a prototype and ran into issues with time constraints.

The hyperloop system is designed to cut down on traffic, which is "like acid on the soul," Musk said at the event.

Musk also explained how the system could work on a larger scale, the AP reported. Autonomous electric vehicles fitted with special wheels could be lowered into the tunnels via elevator, and attach to the track, allowing the car to move very quickly.

"It's much more like an underground highway than it is a subway," Musk said at the event.

This pilot test could have a massive impact on the future of transportation, said Georg Josi, a structural engineer who specializes in tunnel, bridge and rail infrastructure at design firm Dialog.

"If the underground hyperloop pilot is successful and adopted by users, we could see rapid acceleration within the next five years," Josi said. Key to widespread adoption will be addressing all safety concerns, and securing financial and political support, he added.

Many countries have designed and constructed complex systems to mitigate accidents, Josi said. There's no reason why hyperloops could not be designed and built to reach the same safety standards as other forms of travel used today, he added.

"When we consider the size and scale at which flight globally or high-speed trains in Europe and Asia operate, hyperloop can compete without question," Josi said. "If a series of pods can hold a similar capacity to that of a high-speed train and run in consistent intervals, the service is viable."

Another important consideration for adoption will be energy: The energy required to move the system would be substantially lower than that required to move the vehicles we use today, Josi said. Ideally the system will use renewable energy, he added, but hyperloop projects may have an easier time coming to fruition today if they incorporate legacy energy sources.

For an aboveground hyperloop to become a common form of transportation, companies will have to navigate environmental zoning and building in dense urban areas, Josi said. While an underground hyperloop would be more visually pleasing, it would be far more costly, and still subject to environmental backlash, he added.

Beyond the look and the funding, "people will be reticent to adopt any new technology if they feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or the process is inefficient, so these are the primary considerations," Josi said.

A number of companies are now trying to bring this Hyperloop concept, originated by Musk, to life. These include Virgin Hyperloop One, which hit a new speed record of 240 mph in December 2017.

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Business travel benefits

Back in May, Musk first demonstrated his concept for "the Loop," a "personalized mass transit system" that can carry 16 people and travel at 150 miles per hour in underground tunnels, as reported by our sister site CNET.

The Loop would involve hundreds of small stations throughout a city the size of a single or double car parking spot, rather than a few large stations, to prevent traffic, Musk said. He projected that the cost of this travel would be only $1 per passenger.

If travel via the Hyperloop becomes a reality, its routes could radically cut down on the time and costs for business and other travelers to get from city to city and country to country: For example, routes include 30 minutes from San Francisco to Los Angeles, 50 minutes from London to Edinburgh, eight minutes from Helsinki to Tallinn, and 55 minutes from Melbourne to Sydney, according to TechRepublic's Nick Heath.

This would be a major boon for business travelers, who care most about travel time, efficiency, and the cost and flexibility of getting to their destinations, Josi said.

"If hyperloop is done right with refined safety and operational standards that address political and technical concerns, people will perceive it as something between a train and plane," Josi said. "Unlike an airplane, hyperloop would be able to easily integrate with other transportation modes on-the-ground and require less infrastructure at its destinations. Without dispute, hyperloop done right would allow us to connect cities, its centers, and people en masse more efficiently than any of today's modes of transportation."

The city, collective, or private company that packages their proposal with the best marketing that addresses all potential concerns and can secure financial and political buy-in will win with hyperloop, Josi said.

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Image: The Boring Company