Elon Musk’s Hyperloop And Five Other Transportation Ideas From Science Fiction

Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, Space X, and electric car company Tesla Motors, is making waves again with his advocacy for what he’s calling the Hyperloop, a theoretical high-speed transit system that he says could reduce travel times between cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco or Washington, DC and New York to thirty minutes. Matt Yglesias is right to point out that if we just had direct service between cities like the ones Musk wants to serve, and straightened the routes, train travel, which theoretically got Musk angry enough to start his Hyperloop push (he has no current plans to build the system himself, though Musk might construct a prototype) would be a whole lot faster without any new technology. But Musk, to his credit, is at least poking us to think a little harder about the future.

Here are five other science fictional means of transportation that remind us that the Hyperloop is only moderately ambitious, and that if it’s Musk who’s dreaming big, the rest of us are still thinking relatively small.


1. Space Elevator (The Fountains Of Paraside, Arthur C. Clarke, Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson): It wouldn’t exactly be easy to string a cable down from an orbital space station to the planet, and to keep both the station and the cable traveling at the same speed as the planet. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, the cable’s even detached from the station in an act of terrorism. But still, the idea of hopping up to a transit hub and traveling from there to other planets is exciting. Though if we’re only now considering renovating Port Authority in New York, I don’t want to think about what a space elevator would look like after decades of continuous use.

2. Directional Ticket (Foundation, Isaac Asimov): A small but practical idea, Directional Tickets glow as you get closer to your intended destination. Anything that would make it easier for people to find their seats on airplanes, or that would let you reserve an actual coach seat on an Amtrak train would feel like progress to me. Though the real winner would be some sort of magical device that finally gets through people’s heads what does and doesn’t fit in an overhead bin.

3. The Nautilus (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Jules Verne): The Hyperloop’s been described as alternately like being fired out of a gun, and like an incredible fast Disney ride. But as much as I’d be willing to trade a case of high-speed car sickness for extremely rapid travel over land, terra firma and the air are just the beginning of our rapid travel possibilities. You couldn’t convince me to set foot on a cruise ship (thanks, David Foster Wallace and Carnival!), but an extremely fast, elegant, giant submarine that’s capable of zipping through the ocean without packing me Chunnel-like in a tube that will exacerbate my claustrophobia? Sign me up, and I’ll pack my opera gloves for a touch of old-world elegance.

4. Jump Harness (Stranger In A Strange Land, Robert Heinlein): Most of the time when we’re talking about futuristic transit, we’re talking about mass transit. But one of the most tiresome parts of contemporary travel is other people. So why not think about personalized transit? Heinlein doesn’t explain much about how jump harnesses work, but they sound a bit like seven-league boots with a boost, letting their wearers hop from one destination to another far-flung one at a single bound. Licensed users would probably have to learn not to ram into each other at high speeds — think the Harry Potter universe’s splinching, plus collisions — but breaking free of existing routes and timetables would be wonderful.


5. Displacement Booth (Flash Crowd, Larry Niven): Despite the potential side effects, marvelously described by Breaking Bad’s Skinny Pete, the dream of teleportation or beaming remains a gold standard of science fictional travel. Niven’s idea? Booths where you pay for your trips by credit card and get zapped wherever you’re going instantly. Displacement booths might require landing pads at your destination, and run the risk of graffiti or wait times, and we’d have to figure out a pricing scheme, depending on whether it requires more energy for longer trips. And what happens if someone’s Displacing to the same location at the same time that you are? But given that we’ve gotten rid of phone booths and police boxes, it seems like there are an awful lot of places where we could fit a Displacement Booth or two, and eliminate the pesky trip to the airport or train station in the process.