It’s hard to avoid headlines about Elon Musk. Just in the last few months, Elon and company released the Tesla Model 3, made a colossal energy deal with Australia, and drove a tech-savvy tiny house around the “land down under.” Even if you’re sick of hearing about Musk, it’s hard to deny the hype surrounding the man; he clearly has a “Midas touch.” Just look at our latest reviews for the Tesla Model 3, Powerwall 2, and Model S. But now, China Aerospace Science and Industry (CASIC) is challenging Musk’s Hyperloop with a concept of their own. If it works, it will leave Musk in the dust.
A Little Competition Never Hurt Anyone
Elon Musk and other participants in the race to build a viable Hyperloop have been engaging in a friendly speed competition lately. Last month, Hyperloop One, a Los Angeles-based startup that Musk is not affiliated with, announced that its test pod reached a speed of 193 mph (310 km/h). This was a new Hyperloop test speed record. But didn’t last long.
A few days later, the WARR Hyperloop from the Technical University of Munich in Germany reached a speed of 201 mph (323 km/h). An 8-mile difference may not seem like much, but every increase counts towards Musk’s desire for a Hyperloop that can reach the speed of sound.
Last week, Musk joined in the competition by running a SpaceX pusher vehicle with a Tesla drivetrain down the SpaceX Hyperloop test track. The SpaceX pod reached a new record speed of 220 mph (354 km/h). This contraption is usually used to propel other test pods that don’t have their own means for acceleration. It usually looks like the image below.
For this event, the pusher received its own shell to speed through the tunnel. Happy with the results, Musk mentioned that they may try again for a speed of 310 mph (499 km/h) next month after some design tweaks. This speed would be roughly half the speed of sound (767 mph or 1235 km/h).
While Musk and others’ Hyperloop designs are improving speeds iteration after iteration, CASIC, China’s state-run space contractor, announced its informal entry into the race with a concept of its own. CASIC has commenced research on a “high-speed flying train.” Mao Kai, chief engineer of its design, stated in an interview with China News Service (CNS) that it will reach a speed of 2,485 mph (4,000 km/h).
Speed Never Before Seen
If CASIC’s calculations are correct, that means its vehicle would be 3 times faster than the speed of sound. To put this in perspective, that would be about 4 times faster than commercial airlines, and 10 times faster than the fastest bullet train in existence, which currently operates in China.
The concept for the “high-speed flying train” would be similar to the Hyperloop. Hardly resembling a conventional train, it would basically be a passenger pod enclosed in a near-vacuum tube. While it won’t really fly, it will utilize magnetic levitation to achieve its unheard-of speeds for ground transportation.
Of course, like Elon and company, CASIC’s progress towards its speed goal would be incremental. CASIC says its first step would be to reach a speed of 621 mph (1,000 km/h). That’s a daunting first step. It’s more than double what Elon hopes to reach in about a month. Other priorities for CASIC are safety and affordability. Kai mentioned that the train would probably ramp up to its supersonic speeds; accelerating too fast could be uncomfortable for passengers. He also dismissed any mention that tickets could be too expensive for the average citizen.
“The vehicle’s acceleration speed would be slower than a plane in taking off so passengers could be free of safety concerns.”
– Mao Kai
It comes as no surprise that CASIC’s concept has been received with skepticism. Musk and company are struggling to reach the 760 mph (1,200 km/h) sub-supersonic speed goal for the Hyperloop. If fully realized, CASIC’s tube-enclosed system would be the first one made for supersonic speed. But don’t count China out just yet.
Outlandish Claims or a Tangible Future?
No terrestrial vehicle has exceeded the Mach 3 benchmark (2,283 mph) that China aims to exceed. But China has a good track record of making borderline quixotic ideas into reality. As mentioned, the country currently has the fastest bullet train, which reaches a top speed of 300 mph (483 km/h). China also made the TEB-1, a 15.6 ft high transit bus that houses 300 passengers and overtakes traffic by going above it.
Currently, there is no timetable for CASIC to turn the “flying train” from concept to reality. The company says it has over 200 patents for this project alone. The supersonic train could prove to be integral to China’s “One Belt, One Road” plan. This plan for global trade could be thought of as modern China’s attempt at a second Silk Road. Almost 70 countries and organizations have agreed to take part in this mega infrastructure project, which has been largely responsible for China’s recent infrastructure spending spree.
It is safe to assume that the new supersonic train would add a “pretty penny” to China’s already exorbitant spending spree on infrastructure to realize “One Belt, One Road.” Regardless, this competition between CASIC and Tesla only has one real winner — the average transportation user, perpetually late, and always looking to get there faster.