Elon Musk’s plan for the futuristic high-speed transportation system called Hyperloop represents the precise kind of outside-the-box thinking the United States needs to break out of its current economic and cultural malaise.
But the system’s design is so riddled with problems that Hyperloop is probably destined to end up on the same trash heap of other doomed futuristic mass transport schemes.
In California, plans for a bullet train have been experiencing political gridlock, much to the frustration of Musk, the billionaire industrialist with a penchant for ambitious and visionary extra-planetary expeditions and the mass manufacture of electric cars. Musk has pointed out that the high-speed rail system will cost $68.4 billion (projected), travel at a speed of a mere 164 mph, thus taking 2 hours, 28 minutes between L.A. and San Francisco, and cost $105 per trip (only $10 less expensive than driving and $50 less than flying).
And so Musk has a solution, revealed on his SpaceX website a few days ago. Hyperloop is a tube packed with capsules full of people who will be shot between stations in Los Angeles and San Francisco like pucks on an air hockey table. He’s talked about the Hyperloop before, but this is the first the public has gotten a somewhat detailed look at any specifics. The big catch is that Musk has announced that between trying to get to Mars and making an affordable version of the Tesla, he won’t be able to dedicate the time he’d like towards making the Hyperloop a reality. I thought this guy was supposed to be Iron Man.
“I’m just putting this out there as an open source design,” he has said. “There are sure to be suggestions out there for making this better, correcting any mistakes, and refining the design. I wish I had not mentioned it. I still have to run SpaceX and Tesla, and it’s fucking hard.”
While the world certainly needs visionaries of Musk’s calibre and know-how, this Hyperloop thing does seem to have a couple basic hitches. There are a lot of things right with these plans as laid out by Musk, such as its comparatively low cost (relative to the proposed California high-speed rail system), as well as its apparent earthquake-proof construction (the pylons that the tube sits on provide a flexible response to all but catastrophic shaking). So what’s wrong with the Hyperloop? Who wouldn’t like to take a ride on Elon Musk’s Hyperbahn?
Doomed futuristic mass transport schemes litter the byways of history. First there was the “Boston to Liverpool Pneumatic Tubes Company”, which was dreamt up in 1895 and sounds a whole lot like Musk’s plans.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, an English mechanical and civil engineer, built important bridges, tunnels and England’s Great Western Railway. He also dreamed up the “Atmospheric Railway”, a patented system that was to move trains by use of atmospheric, or vacuum traction, in which stationary pumps sucked air from a pipe placed in the centre of the track. His dreams were literally eaten by rats.
Our fascination with futuristic transport continues. Remember the huckster Lyle Lanley from “Marge Vs. The Monorail”, one of the Simpson’s best episodes?
Elon Musk is clearly no Lyle Lanley. He already has bags and bags of money. But is his Hyperloop destined to join similarly well-intentioned ventures? Now that we’ve established the good aspects of Musk’s plan, let’s pick it apart.
It has been widely reported that the Hyperloop’s terminals are in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but citing “right-of-way purchase costs”, the actual station locations will be in Sylmar on the “Los Angeles” end and San Leandro on the “San Francisco” end, across the bay from “that city by the Bay”. These are not insignificant distances from their respective targets.
The beauty of already existing train stations and bus depots are that those terminals are right downtown, providing at least that small commuting advantage over flyers. Sure, your flight was only an hour, but you still had to get to the airport on your end and now have to find your way downtown in this strange city you’ve just landed in, effectively doubling your door-to-door journey.
If the Hyperloop’s pick-up and drop-off points were central, it would share bus and rail transport’s advantage and effectively make S.F.-to-L.A. air travel nonsensical. But the commuting problems are even more pronounced with Hyperloop, with no infrastructure available from the new stations to their downtowns.
The document does, however, allow for several stations along the way “with splits in the tube”. So those “stops” are entire lines in themselves, then, not simply stops along a continuous line.
Detractors have also pointed out the lack of on-board washrooms, but this ought really to be a non-issue. The trip is 35 minutes, station to station. Almost any trip on public transit is about that long with no restrooms provided, and unless you drive with a colostomy bag under the driver’s seat neither does your car, so while the prospect of providing for the rare “emergency” on the Hyperloop looms large for a few, it seems like a quibble to anyone else.
For all its faults, the proposed high-speed rail project at least accounts for several stops, and so doesn’t assume that the only people worth transporting live exclusively in either the Bay area or Los Angeles.
A recent Bloomberg piece about why American public transportation is so expensive compared with similar infrastructure in Europe and Asia, where bullet trains and underwater tunnels are now the norm, places the blame squarely at the feet of the U.S. legal system, as well as obsolete state procurement rules.
And here’s where Musk, in his PDF, lets drop a few hints that while he certainly has devised a brilliant plan well worth looking at, his actual real-world megaproject savvy is in for a schooling. “The train in question would be both slower, more expensive to operate (if unsubsidized) and less safe by two orders of magnitude than flying, so why would anyone use it?”
Newsflash: Large public works projects and transportation systems are all massively tax subsidized. Otherwise, it would likely cost $12 per trip to ride the bus and subway, if we were actually counting on the ridership to fund the entire thing. And there’d be toll booths at every chokepoint on every road, in an effort to recoup the massive tax outlay, which would have the side effect of slowing travel to a crawl between each jurisdiction.
The investment is worth it because ease of transportation for goods and people have an economic multiplier effect that outweighs the cost of the infrastructure. This is tax-and-spend 101, which along with talk about taxes and NIMBYism and safety concerns, just doesn’t go down too well in the Justice League of America that the titans of Silicon Valley occupy.
This is where we really get into Musk’s reluctance to cost his plan out in anything other than cursory, scrawled-on-a-napkin detail, unlike California’s actual, predictable and probably more realistic estimates of its plan.
He at least appears to know that this thing won’t be built without first testing some kind of prototype. In a conference call following Hyperloop’s unveiling, Musk mused, “I’ve sort of come around a little bit on my thinking here that maybe I should do the beginning bit and build a subscale version that’s operating.” Yes, like any other purely theoretical technology that you’re planning to stick passengers into.
And if, as Musk claims, the train is “less safe by two orders of magnitude than flying”, that still makes it much safer by a hefty margin than driving a car or riding a motorcycle. Speaking of safety, eventually someone is going to vandalize the thing. Not everyone is preoccupied with changing the future like Musk is, and the bored youth of small town California who currently waste their days putting dents in stop signs and dropping water-filled balloons off highway overpasses are not likely going to be able to resist the gorgeous tube passing through their town. And if not bored teenagers, there are also terrorists.
The method of Musk’s coy reveal calls into question his motivation. Throwing California’s proposed high-speed rail system under the bus while suggesting his own infinitely superior tube contraption, and then pleading that he’s too busy to work on it, and finally throwing it out there for “feedback” feels like a weird approach. Why is he doing this now?
The Hyperloop is impractical for a distance shorter than L.A. to S.F., and he’s already conceded that longer distances are better served by flight. The better alternative, then, would be to connect two centres that are a comparable distance that don’t have a populace who would resent seeing a futuristic tube in the middle of the I-5 median that they have no access to.
If the high-speed rail project goes through, Musk might be left with the only other substantial proposed station on his map: Las Vegas. I suspect that the reason he didn’t put L.A. to Las Vegas forward as the initial plan is that the optics of that route would make the Hyperloop seem more like a theme park ride than the serious big-money project Musk would like it to be. Or maybe even kind of frivolous. But perhaps that’s just what it is.