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The slow, humble return of the Hyperloop

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When Elon Musk first revealed plans for a new kind of high-speed transport, the plans arrived like a lightning bolt. The new invention, called the Hyperloop, would ferry passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in less than 30 minutes, thanks to an ultralight design and an innovative combination of air blades and a semi-evacuated tube. It was a world-changer, assuming anyone succeeded in actually building it.

Then...we waited. For more than a year, nothing happened. Musk made the plans public and referred to preliminary tests in Texas, but it's unclear if he ever followed through on building a test model. Instead, he made the plans public, promising not to enforce his trademark on the idea and hoping others would pick up the idea and run with it.

Now, one of the first projects is finally finding its legs. First formed last September, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Inc. has announced a new stage of the project, together with new research into the finance and engineering of the system set to arrive later this week. The company works on an unusual model, drawing from a network of over a hundred professionals with experience from Boeing, Tesla, and SpaceX. Under the JumpStartFund model, each employee is compensated through a share of the company's eventual profits. If the system works, the profits will be shared far more broadly than a traditional corporation — but until that time, they're all volunteers.

The group is still a long way from actually producing a working Hyperloop, but it's already made serious progress on how an eventual system might look. The group envisions three classes — economy, business and freight — with dozens of possible routes across the US. The group is also looking into improvements on the initial design. "In the initial white paper, air has the advantage that it's cheap, but it also has problems with control," says CEO Dirk Ahlborn. If another medium performs better in testing, it will be easy to switch. After initial financial projections, the cost for the trans-California route is expected to fall between $7 and $16 billion — a good deal higher than Musk's initial estimate of $6 billion, but still a bargain compared to existing rail projects. "The biggest thing for me is the price," says Ahlborn. "We know it's not going to cost $50 billion — we know we're in a range that works."