For 80 years, humans have been placing themselves in metal tubes that whiz around the earth’s atmosphere at 600 miles per hour. Today, Elon Musk is doing the same thing, only instead of putting these vessels miles into the air, he is planning to place them on the ground.

The Hyperloop is a light, aerodynamic pod that travels on a bed of air atop a rail system. Using “air bearings” — much like those on an air hockey table — to eliminate friction, the Hyperloop system would be capable of reaching speeds up to Mach 1.1 (800 miles per hour), according to Musk’s 2013 white paper, “Hyperloop Alpha.” Musk first pioneered the concept as a response to California’s plan to build a high-speed rail (HSR) between San Francisco and Los Angeles. However, the proposed rail would have cost $77 billion to build, a fortune compared to the estimated $6 billion construction cost of the Hyperloop. The Hyperloop is extremely cost and energy effective, with minimum maintenance costs, and “motors” powered by solar panels on the pod. Musk also claims that the Hyperloop would be able to transport passengers from SF to LA in less than 30 minutes — 5 times faster than the rail.

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Diagrams from Musk’s paper “Hyperloop Alpha” (2013)

Much progress has been made on the Hyperloop since its inception in 2013. This is because after laying down the groundwork for Hyperloop technology, Musk opened up development on his project to the public, allowing start-ups, students and established companies alike to bring his idea to reality. While the Hyperloop initially began as an alternative to an HSR between SF and LA, it has become an international engineering phenomenon. Maharashtra in India, the United Arab Emirates, and the Netherlands have all announced plans to implement Hyperloop systems in their respective regions. The most prominent team working on the Hyperloop is Virgin Hyperloop One, which has recently been backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. So far, the Virgin team has generated over 300 million dollars in funding, and built a 500m long test tube in Nevada, successfully launching pods at over 240 miles per hour. The team plans to officially put the Hyperloop in service by moving cargo to and from Los Angeles, with a start date projected as early as 2021.

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The Virgin Hyperloop One Testing Track

Being a revolutionary form of transportation, the Hyperloop seriously threatens both the commercial airline and train industries. Because the shuttle would be able to achieve plane-like speeds without the delays of landing and takeoff, Hyperloop could make trips quicker than today’s airplanes, and is a prime alternative for mid-distance routes. In addition, Musk plans to offer Hyperloop tickets for approximately $20, far cheaper than the average $112 for the airplane ticket between San Francisco and Los Angeles. On top of that, Hyperloop passengers would not have to go through the hassle of airport security, bag checks, and a slow boarding process. Instead, the experience would be much more comparable to going through a train station. This trifecta of speed, cost and convenience would lead to a predicted yearly loss of $1 billion for the airline industry. Yet, trains are also bested by the Hyperloop, which would travel 2-3 times faster than the fastest HSR, and 10 times faster than traditional rail systems. Besides, pods are projected to leave every 30 seconds, making the Hyperloop even more convenient than calling an Uber, much less a train. As Hyperloops gradually become integrated into our transportation system, today’s trains will slowly phase out. In 10 years, it is more likely that you will be taking a Hyperloop than either a train or a commercial airplane (supersonic jets are another question).

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A chart comparing commute times of various transportation systems between LA and SF (the Hyperloop is in blue)

It is important to note that the aforementioned numerical predictions on the Hyperloop come mostly from Musk’s own mouth. Critics often perceive the true cost of the Hyperloops to be nearly $100 billion, and believe the $20 ticket price tag is unattainable. However, doubters of Musk have historically been proven wrong the hard way — after all, this is the man behind both Tesla and SpaceX.

The biggest concern with the Hyperloop is its safety. What happens if the pod depressurizes, or the track malfunctions? What about extreme weather? Well, Musk claims that the Hyperloop will be safer than any conventional form of transportation. According to “Hyperloop Alpha,” the system would be “immune” to rain, fog and snow, and in the emergency case of a loss in cabin pressure, oxygen masks would drop — just like in a plane — to counter the vacuum that forms in the pod. Pods are also equipped with emergency brakes, so if one pod malfunctions, other pods would not be affected.

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A mock-up of a Hyperloop station

Needless to say, no matter how safe any given transportation is, there will always be people concerned with its safety.  At the time of the airplane’s inception, the idea of a metal tube flying people around at the speed of sound turned many away, but it has become the safest form of transportation in the world.  Just stay optimistic, because the Hyperloop is tomorrow’s transportation, and “tomorrow” is not too far away.

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