Published July 24, 2013
Daryl Oster has wanted to blast himself through a tube since he was about five years old.
He grew up on a farm in Colorado, where his father made farm equipment from scrap steel. Mr. Oster remembers watching a man at the scrap yard load metal on a giant scale. The man would write down the weight, stuff the paper into a canister, and send it to an office across the street through a pneumatic tube.
"I'm probably not the first five-year-old kid to wonder what it would be like to ride in one of those things," Mr. Oster said. But at 51 years of age, he is still wondering.
Mr. Oster is the founder of ET3, a Colorado and Florida-based consortium touting plans to shuttle people from New York to Los Angeles in 45 minutes. He wants to do this with magnetically levitated capsules inside five-foot-diameter tubes.
ET3 calls it "space travel on Earth." Air would be vacuumed from the tubes, creating the kind of frictionless ride astronauts experience in orbit, reaching speeds of up to 4,000 miles per hour.
"It will have the acceleration of a Corvette or a Ferrari that's on the verge of breaking the tires loose," Mr. Oster said, yet still offer a comfortable ride.
The capsules, a little longer than 16 feet, could carry anything from furniture and refrigerators to basic commodities. Zipping along at many times the speed of sound, passengers would never be more than 15 minutes from an air-locked stopping point if they needed a restroom. Computers would drive every capsule so precisely they could ride inches apart. "They can be routed through a network of tubes just like packets of information through the Internet," Mr. Oster said.
This pipe dream is far grander than the "Hyperloop" that Elon Musk plans to unveil on Aug. 12.
The South African inventor has been cryptically referencing something he calls Hyperloop since July 2012. He has hinted it is a cross between "a Concorde and a rail gun and an air hockey table." He wants to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco with tubes that blast pods at more than 685 mph.
Mr. Musk's reference to air hockey hints at tubes filled with air as opposed to the simulated vacuum of space. Mr. Oster declined to comment on Mr. Musk's plans. But if any of this sounds new, it may be because you didn't read enough Jules Verne.
The father of science fiction may have written the snail-paced "Around the World in 80 Days," but he also imagined shuttling people across oceans via pneumatic tubes in his 1863 work, "Paris in the Twentieth Century."
Pneumatic subways were suggested for New York in the 19th century. And in 1972, a Rand Corp. engineer, Robert M. Salter, wrote a paper proposing mag-lev trains in vacuum tubes, similar to Mr. Oster's plan.
Not only has this idea been around for centuries, but the technology to do this has been here for decades. It is just that, well, some concepts take millennia. Environmental impact studies, engineering and feasibility reports, politicians and big corporations gaming the routes, bid rigging, fraud investigations, having to bore tunnels through mountains of solid granite--you know the drill.
Nevertheless, ET3 hopes to have a three-mile demonstration project running in two years. It says the demo ride will hit 375 mph and recover its $10-million cost in a year by charging people $25 to try it out as an amusement.
In 10 years, ET3 hopes to see national transportation networks in most major countries. In 20 years it hopes to have displaced 90% of today's global transportation.
ET3 offers a lot of intriguing drawings on its webpage, and presents brilliant ideas, but the company mainly consists of Mr. Oster, his wife, and 256 people that Mr. Oster says have become "licensees." ET3, after all, is "open source" technology, developed and used by its licensees. You too, could become a licensee for as little as $100 at ET3.com. Who knows? It could be worth something some day.
Mr. Oster became something of a laughingstock in Crystal River, Fla., where he served as a city council member in 1996. Newspaper accounts poked fun at him for wielding a banana at fellow council members, as if it were a gun, to make an eccentric point during a public meeting. He also suggested police officers should be replaced with video cameras and likened compliance the American's With Disabilities Act to communism. He survived a recall election, but chose not to seek reelection in 1997.
In 2003, he bid, unsuccessfully, on a proposed high-speed rail system that Florida sought to build between Orlando and Tampa. He offered up his mag-lev vacuum tube idea then. The Tampa Bay Times noted that his company had "no physical assets and no employees."
Mr. Oster studied Mechanical Engineering at Walla Walla College in Washington, but didn't graduate. Throughout history, though, a formal education has proven overrated for quirky guys who somehow manage to change the world. Perhaps Mr. Oster fits this profile.
"When I was a kid, if I would ask my dad what two plus two was, he would give me an algebra lesson," Mr. Oster said.
His father, in addition to being a farmer, worked as a cartographer and a high school physics and chemistry teacher. He taught his son skills allowing him to a least draft something that could revolutionize global transportation, fix the world's ailing economy, and end our destructive reliance upon fossil fuels.
It has, at the very least, the beginnings of a great American success story--with 256 licensees and counting.
"We believe it's very doable," Mr. Oster said, "and 256 people around the world agree."
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at email@example.com or tellittoal.com)