October 9, 2017

Elon Musk's Plan to Revolutionize Travel (It Involves Rockets)

by Malek Murison

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Many things have changed in the travel industry over the years. More than anything else, technology has been the driver behind those changes. Every step of the customer journey has been innovated to an extent, from booking to check-out to marketing and everything in between. But one area that hasn't changed all that much is the method of travel. Sure, the planes, cars and boats these days are a little faster, a little more connected and much more comfortable than they used to be. But they are essentially the same nonetheless. Now, it looks like Elon Musk is ready to revolutionize the way we travel, quite literally.

Elon Musk isn't a man who does things by halves. It's fair to say that his two main projects, SpaceX and Tesla, have genuinely disrupted the way we think about space travel and cars. He's also spoken of his mission to send a manned mission to Mars and even has plans to colonize the red planet. So it's not so surprising that he wants to change the way we travel between countries, too.

Intercity rocket-propelled travel: Anywhere on Earth in Under an Hour

Last week, Musk unveiled a futuristic vision of intercity rocket-propelled travel, where flights to anywhere in the world would take under an hour. Wow.

Sure, it's a bold vision. But Musk tends to deliver on his visions. His electric car business is going from strength to strength, and SpaceX conducts regular missions to the International Space Station with re-usable rockets.

While it's just a concept at the moment, we thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at the implications of Musk's BFR (Big F*****g Rocket). How could it impact the travel industry and what kind of new products and services could it enable?

If you thought the prospect of a 30-minute flight to the other side of the world was exciting, you'll definitely be sold on the idea when you discover how much Musk thinks the cost would be for passengers.

The entrepreneur, who has also put forward plans for a 'Hyperloop' transport system to speed up travel between cities, tweeted: “Fly to most places on Earth in under 30 mins and anywhere in under 60. Cost per seat should be about the same as full fare economy in an aircraft.”

That's right: About the same price as full fare economy in an aircraft.

Before we go any further, we should say that the proposal has come in for criticism...

Most notably from The Verge:

“You can’t fly humans on that same kind of orbit,” Brian Weeden, director of program planning for Secure World Foundation, told The Verge. “For one, the acceleration and the G-forces for both the launch and the reentry would kill people. I don’t have it right in front of me, but it’s a lot more than the G-forces on an astronaut we see today going up into space and coming back down, and that’s not inconsiderable.”

Well being killed on re-entry doesn't sound so appealing, does it? But there are more reasons that suggest Musk's latest vision is some way off:

Another problem with ballistic trajectory is radiation exposure in the vacuum of space, Weeden added. To be sure, astronauts on the International Space Station are largely shielded from this radiation, thanks to Earth’s magnetic field, which deflects most of the deep-space particles. But his indifference toward the impact that these interstellar concepts would have on human bodies is classic Musk.

Cost is another huge hurdle. Musk claimed these rocket trips would be as inexpensive as commercial air travel. But that assumes a level of scale that is particularly hard to fathom. A recent study by the US Air Force found that reusable rockets were good for about 100 flights, while commercial airplanes could stay in operation for up to 10,000 flights. As such, Musk’s point-to-point rockets are “probably going to be 10 times the cost per-seat,” said Charles Miller, president of NexGen Space LLC. “He may be 1-in-10,000 [for] loss of vehicle, but it’s nowhere near the 3-and-10 million reliability of airlines.”

While the idea of a ,000 ticket for a 30-minute flight from New York to Shanghai sounds strangely reasonable, it won’t help Musk sell the concept as travel that’s accessible to everybody. Instead, we find ourselves in familiar territory: Silicon Valley proposing a revolutionary idea that will most likely benefit wealthy VCs, billionaire industrialists, and no one else.

But let's imagine that it could happen

elon musk rocket travel

Musk's ballistic travel concept relies on several technologies that SpaceEx hasn't yet produced or perfected. But let's say that his ambitions did come to fruition. How would the ability to get to the other side of the world in half an hour change the travel experience?

Perhaps it would make things better for those who hate being crammed into a flying tube for 24 hours. There's no doubting that many people view airports and flights as the worst part of any trip, the part that you just have to get on with and get through.

But perhaps near-instantaneous travel would take something away from the experience that we don't want to lose. The journey, after all, is all part of the adventure. Right? Would it lessen the awe? Would it tone down the wonder if we were able to pop over to New York or Shanghai or Cape Town or Sydney in less time than it takes to make a decent sandwich?

On a more philosophical level, does a more connected world devalue travel at all? Or does having every potential destination within easy reach open up travel to more people in a way that can only be positive?

Who would be the winners and losers?

In a world in which travel times were dramatically cut, the obvious winners would be travellers. But hotels and destinations also stand to benefit. Tourists will have more time to spend money locally as travel times are greatly reduced. They're also likely to arrive fresh and in high spirits, which counts for a lot when many long-haul flights need to be recovered from before a vacation can really begin.

In terms of losers, that's hard to say at this point. Who in the industry benefits from having a captive audience for hours on end? Possibly the catering companies that supply passenger aircraft, or the laundry services that clean used blankets and pillows. You won't have time to have a nap or a sandwich if it only takes 30 minutes to get from London to New York, after all.

Transforming travel without rockets

As fun as rockets sound, there are plenty of easier (and less dangerous) to transform the customer experience. One of those is the rising popularity of community-driven planning, travel guides and feedback. As well as utilising community-driven content to help you build a thriving marketplace loved by search engines, our software gives travellers the unique and genuine experience they are searching for. That's because our platform allows for locals and sellers to blog at will, discussing their favourite destinations, tours and travel tips - all under one roof: Travellers get the information and insider tips they crave, while your marketplace grows thanks to bundles of organic traffic.

Want to find out more? Get in touch today or read about our software's success in Iceland.