Elon Musk has been dropping hints about a revolutionary form of transport called Hyperloop for over a year, and on Monday he said that the full details will be released on August 12, and that the system's key technologies will be open sourced.
"I really hate patents unless critical to company survival. Will publish Hyperloop as open source," he wrote on Twitter.
Musk has described Hyperloop as "a cross between a Concorde, a rail gun, and an air-hockey table," and claims it will get passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes for a build cost of $6bn, compared to the three-hour trip promised with current plans for a high-speed rail service that's projected to cost $68bn.
He will be happy to work with partners, Musk said, which is handy since he's invested his proceeds from selling PayPal almost entirely in his Tesla electric car company and the SpaceX rocket firm. Anyone on the project, however, needs to "share philosophical goal of breakthrough tech done fast & w/o wasting money on BS."
Speculation is rife about what Hyperloop actually is. The most likely scenario is a maglev train running in vacuum tubes, an idea that has been around for decades but never properly completed. With no air or friction, carriages could reach very fast speeds with a low power outlay, and individual travel capsules could be loaded on as needed.
Such a system could feasibly be put up reasonably quickly using factory-built units slotted together, although getting the land access to build it will be another kettle of fish entirely. If Musk does plan an LA-to-SF tube link, he'll also be building on one of the more active earthquake zones on the planet, which brings its own set of challenges.
Other suggestions have included pneumatic tubes pushing passengers down the line, or even a series of conveyor belts running at different speeds. This hack, however, is making no bets until the details are announced next month; mass transportation tech is notoriously tricky and we've been burned before.
Back at the dawn of the 21th Century, Dean Kamen – a similar wunderkind to Musk – announced he was going to revolutionize the transport world with a device codenamed Ginger.
Ginger turned out to be the Segway, which while it has its uses, hasn't exactly lived up to its promise. It's a pain to use on the road, dangerous on a sidewalk, and has the unfortunate distinction of having had the owner of the company killed by one of his own contraptions, although the legendary British politeness was also a factor.
In the past, Musk has described the rocky road he has had fighting the motor and oil industries with Tesla, but with Hyperloop he's potentially taking on the airlines as well. His plan had better be very good, and even if it is, would most likely fail in the current US economic and political climate.
But if Musk follows through and open sources the plans (and the plans are feasible), some other country may pick up the ball if America drops it. The man has form for changing technology, and next month's release could be very interesting, indeed. ®