The world recognizes the need for speed. Consider the government’s move to introduce Japan’s Shinkansen, better known as a bullet train, in the country. The first Japanese bullet train, which will cover the 508km distance between Mumbai and Ahmedabad in 2 hours at about 350 kmph, may see the light of day by 2025.

The cost of the project is about 98,000 crore, or about $15 billion, which, of course, does not include operation and maintenance costs. But Japan will help India defray the costs.

Trains that use Shinkansen technologies are aerodynamic. The front cars of the Shinkansen trains resemble the nose of an aeroplane to lower wind resistance. The passenger compartments ride atop flatcars that are fitted with an air spring that uses compressed air to absorb the wheel vibration so that it does not reach the passenger compartments, failing which they can fall apart.

Shinkansen tracks have no sharp curves and they never cross other railway lines, so the trains never have to stop and wait for other trains to pass. Also, since human drivers are unable to read signals at such fast speeds, bullet trains have a different kind of speed-control system, known as Automatic Train Control (ATC), which allows for speed information to be transmitted along the track and received by a signal attached to the driver’s seat.

Bullet trains, however, pale in comparison to the speed of planes that can travel from 900-1,100 kmph. What if vehicles could achieve such speeds on the ground?

This is the dream of Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors. Three years ago, he unveiled the idea for a new high-speed ground transport system called the Hyperloop. With a projected top speed of 760 miles per hour (about 1,220 kmph or nearly as fast as sound), the Hyperloop does not plan to overtake supersonic planes but simply travel distances that are less than about 1,500km apart, according to SpaceX.

The total cost of the Hyperloop is under $6 billion for two one-way tubes and 40 capsules. According to SpaceX, amortizing this capital cost over 20 years and adding daily operational costs gives a total of $20 plus operating costs per one-way ticket on the passenger Hyperloop.

The Hyperloop is an open-design concept, similar to the Linux operating system. Hence, neither SpaceX nor Elon Musk is developing a commercial Hyperloop. However, in a bid to accelerate the development of a functional Hyperloop prototype, SpaceX announced in June 2015 an open competition to attract university students and independent engineering teams to design and build the best Hyperloop pod.

To support the competition, SpaceX also constructed a 1-mile test track adjacent to its headquarters in Hawthorne in California, US. A total of 20 teams will test their human-scale pods during a competition weekend “this summer", according to the SpaceX website.

Some companies have already begun testing their pods. On 11 May, Hyperloop One (which changed its name from Hyperloop Technologies) used an electric motor to push a sled down a test track outside Las Vegas at nearly 185 kmph. The demo lasted a few seconds but the company hopes that the sled will eventually evolve into a chassis of sorts for a pod and accelerate to over 750 kmph in a few seconds.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), on its part, revealed its Hyperloop pod design on 14 May. While the MIT has chosen a levitation system that uses magnets and a conducting plate for its Hyperloop pod, according to a 14 May article in the Scientific American, the University of Colorado Denver’s HyperLynx team has opted for a hybrid of a pod that uses wheels for travelling at less than 160 kmph and an air cushion for higher speeds.

Another company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, announced a base technology for its passive magnetic levitation (maglev) system. Russia, too, plans to develop a Hyperloop network for freight transportation.

But will the Hyperloop become the future of ground transportation? Elon Musk and the companies that are making these pods certainly believe this will eventually happen. But sceptics are asking questions like: What effect will such pods have on our bodies when they accelerate at such extreme speeds? Besides, will tracks for these Hyperloop pods be straight for the greater part of the journey since slowing down at sharp turns, or stopping for emergencies, could prove very dicey?

There are no immediate answers. For now, we can only wait till the Hyperloop pods test their mettle on SpaceX’s California track.

Cutting Edge is a monthly column that explores the melding of science and technology.

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