On August 12, 2013, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, unveiled his much-anticipated preliminary design for a “Hyperloop” system that he hopes will revolutionize mass transit and significantly reduce transportation-related carbon emissions. As Mr. Musk explains, existing conventional modes of mass transit between cities consist of three main types, each with its own pro and con matrix:

  1. Rail – expensive, slow, often environmentally sound
  2. Road – inexpensive, slow, not environmentally sound
  3. Air – expensive, fast, not environmentally sound

Instead, Mr. Musk is proposing a new mode of transport that combines the benefits of rail, road, and air without any of their negative aspects. With its inspiration derived from pneumatic tubes used to send mail and packages within and between buildings, the Hyperloop would transport people and cargo between cities inside low-pressurized tubes travelling at speeds in excess of 1,000 kilometers per hour. The tubes would be elevated on columns and run between high traffic city pairs that are less than 1,500 kilometers apart. This would make travelling between cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco possible in about 30 minutes. Most notably, the Hyperloop system is emissions-free as it would draw 100% of its required energy from solar panels mounted across portions of the tube.

The Hyperloop announcement comes less than two months after President Obama unveiled The President’s Climate Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that places a strong emphasis on the transportation sector. In 2011, transportation in the United States contributed to 28% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, 2nd most behind electricity generation. In conjunction with developing stringent fuel economy standards for vehicles and deploying advanced transportation technologies, the Obama Administration promises to leverage partnerships between the private and public sector to push for greener transportation technologies.  

Like the United States, Canada has also focused on combating greenhouse gas emissions by placing a strong emphasis on the transportation sector. On June 7, 2013, Canada’s Environment Minister, the Honourable Peter Kent, announced that the government is planning to align its transportation emission standards with that of the United States. The details of these standards will be developed in consultation with stakeholders.  

It will be interesting to see if the United States or Canadian governments support the development of the Hyperloop should the technology prove feasible in the near future.

Tamir Birk - 2013 Summer Student.