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Hyperloop problems: Elon Musk’s dream is riddled with flaws

Hyperloop problems
Hyperloop problems
Doomed futuristic mass transport schemes litter the byways of history. Is Elon Musk’s Hyperloop destined to join them?

Elon Musk has Hyperloop problems. The enterprising American’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?

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, an English mechanical and civil engineer, built important bridges, tunnels and England’s Great Western Railway. He also dreamed up the doomed “Atmospheric Railway”.

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.

Hyperloop problems abound…

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.

Hyperloop problems
Monorail! 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?

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.

Hyperloop problems
Due to right-of-way purchase costs the Los Angeles Hyperloop station would be located in semi-rural Sylmar. Don’t worry, you can probably catch a bus from here…

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.

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  1. That was a waste of my time. You’ve done nothing to tell me why the Hyperloop plan won’t work.

    You could have written the exact same article about how Tesla would be thrown on the scrapheap of history, or how SapceX surely had no chance of success just a few years ago. All you’ve done here, from the comfort of your desk chair, is made some lazy comparisons, thrown in some doubt with musings about how children might do this or that, then concluded that because people have failed in the past, and Elon has not accounted for vandalism, his plan is not feasible.

    I’ll tell you what, go launch a rocket into orbit on less than a billion dollars. Then I will weight your opinion about what is feasible equal to Elon’s. Until then I remind you that those that best predict the future are those that create it.

  2. Terry – Forgive me for being honest, but I feel that this article is all headline and not much substance.

    You correctly point out that there have been other high speed transit ideas over the years and none have panned out. Unless you have the technical knowledge to discuss how those other ideas differed from Musk’s idea, I don’t think you have any value to add in even going there. Were the other ideas based on total vacuums? How did they propose to overcome choked flow? Were any of them ever actually prototyped? If you either don’t know the answer or aren’t willing to simplify it for the reader, how is anyone going to value your opinion?

    You mention poor locations for stations in LA and SF. And yet, we all know this is an engineering design, and the urban planning was a nice extra that he threw into the document, do we not? The urban planning is not the focus here. Poor locations for a hyperloop station are fixable, just like train stations. It’s not even worth discussing in the context of the big picture here … engineering something better.

    Subsidy or no subsidy, it’s really obvious from the proposed design (if it can be prototyped and proven) that it would cost significantly less to build (and therefore subsidize) on a per-mile basis. Your “newsflash” sarcasm doesn’t make any useful point.

    You seem to attack Musk for not putting out as detailed of a cost plan. And yet he actually did outline the costs with a lot more detail than anyone probably expected, given he’d promised to publish a design concept, not an economic document…is that not true?

    Even the PDF you link to, with California’s own bullet train cost estimates, it’s quite obvious that the biggest cost element is the track itself. Since Musk proposes steel tubes mounted on pillars – it’s quite easy to see how this would outperform a bullet train on cost. Often times an engineer won’t waste space proving the obvious. Hence the rough cost outline.

    You seem to then help lift Musk back up to your level, by acknowledging that, “He at least appears to know that this thing won’t be built without first testing some kind of prototype.” Come on, Terry. This is as useless as telling us that “at least” his brain functions well enough to allow him to breathe without having to think about it. Prototyping and testing are table stakes in engineering.

    You claim that Musk’s design is impractical for shorter distances than SF to LA. How much shorter? Based on what? Are you aware that his document suggests Hyperloop as a solution for sub-900 mile distances?

    You claim that Musk has conceded that “longer distances are best served by flight”. Are you not aware that he’s talking about supersonic flight?

    I realize this is meant to be an opinion piece. But when you’re writing an opinion on such a technical topic it’s far too easy to get caught up in mistakes based on a lack of education in the field. And I think that’s what has happened to you here.


  3. Hi Chris, This reminds me of an issue that you’ve mentioned in the recent past: that people are responding to what they think I’ve written, rather than to what I actually wrote.

    I am not questioning Elon Musk’s ability to make the Hyperloop a reality. He has very effectively silenced critics who heckled the idea of an electric car and private space travel (his solar venture with his brother shouldn’t be minimized, either). I’ve written about him before in Cantech. Nobody comments when I praise the man. But express a little doubt, and wham, the Muskovites appear.

    What I actually wrote (maybe it wasn’t clear) is that I believe that with the release of Musk’s PDF what we’re witnessing is a public sulk. He’s upset that the voters of California have approved a high-speed rail project, when they could have had a Hyperloop. He badmouths it in his opening paragraph and several times more throughout the document and repeatedly in the media.

    I do think the station locations are a problem that can’t just be swept aside as a detail that can be “engineered” away “just like train stations”. Train stations are not proposed and then approved in the absence of a concrete location for each terminus, and they certainly wouldn’t be worth anyone’s time if the station labelled “Manhattan” actually let you off in Newark. The high speed rail project will take passengers from downtown to downtown in under 2.5 hours for $105.

    To take the Hyperloop, you’ve got to cab it out to the Hyperloop station (because public transit in Los Angeles is famously useless). Then you’re in the Hyperloop for 1/2 an hour. Then you’re across the bay from San Francisco, wondering how to get downtown. Total time and money spent, and you’re not doing appreciably better than the HSR. “Poor locations are fixable”? Why propose a project this ambitious and then handwave away the last mile? It’s weird. I would respectfully disagree that these details are “not even worth discussing in the context of the big picture”.

    As to his budget, you say, “it’s quite easy to see how this would outperform a bullet train on cost.” We’ll never know until he builds his prototype and discovers the unanticipated costs of perfecting an untested technology for mass consumption. In fact, we’ll never actually know because he’s announced that he’s not going to get involved in building the Hyperloop. He’d rather go to Mars. (Which is awesome.)

    If you take the TGV high-speed rail in France (or just the Eurostar between Paris and London), or any rail at all in Japan, your primary thoughts are not, “Man, what a waste of taxpayer dollars.” They are, “This is awesome. Why can’t we do this in North America?” It’s an almost purely political tragedy that we haven’t done it before, and it’s great that it’s finally happening in California. Musk is ticked off that his pet route is taken. Now he’ll have to build it someplace he doesn’t live.

    I hope he builds a Hyperloop eventually between two locations that make sense. L.A. to Las Vegas, or Dallas to Houston, perhaps?

    I’d respond to every point you’ve made, but we’ll end up writing a new article. Thanks for reading.

  4. Terry – Are you accusing me, specifically, of responding to what I think you wrote rather than what you actually wrote? If so, I challenge you to point out something specific. If not me, who specifically are the “people” you refer to?

    Last word on stations: Nobody said the locations should be “swept aside as a detail.” Notice Musk didn’t even discuss the exact locations of the stations in his document? This debate comes from a single exhibit (map) in the PDF. There is no text discussing proposed station locations. The PDF is clearly not a detailed design. It is an overview of a proposed technology. Instead, you’re treating the whole thing like some final design where nobody would bother to go and improve upon things like where the stations are, or how people get to/from the stations.

    I look forward to your update. For quite a lengthy reply, I am curious as to why you haven’t either corrected me or admitted your mistakes when mentioning “impractical for shorter distances”, or “longer distances are best served by flight” (the fact that he’s talking about supersonic flight is not a detail to gloss over when tearing apart Hyperloop)

  5. It’s because I don’t wake up in the morning needing to win a fight on the internet, Chris. I’m trying to be respectful here. I’m not “accusing” you of anything. You wrote me a nice note with best regards at the end, with a strong indication that the material is beyond my comprehension. Which I ignored.

    By the same token, you want me to get specific and detailed on the one hand and then insist that I accept vagueness on the other. Your “last word on stations” isn’t the last word, unfortunately. From the PDF, on page 47, there’s the route, along with the stated rationale for terminus locations to “minimize land/right of way purchase costs”. That’s why they’re in the middle of nowhere. He doesn’t want to deal with boring politics sitting through meetings with people who can’t think big picture and just accept the grand vision offered them.

    Again, the thesis of my article (what I wrote) is that he’s expressing sour grapes over the fact that the high-speed rail project is going ahead for the same route that he had envisioned for his Loop. So now it just won’t happen at all, because he’s too busy.

  6. You originally replied with “This reminds me of an issue that you’ve mentioned in the recent past: that people are responding to what they think I’ve written, rather than to what I actually wrote.”

    I asked you if you’re accusing *me* of doing this, especially since you provide no actual examples of misinterpretation or mind reading. If not an accusation, why write it? Your answer to my question was a deflection.

    You’ve clarified the thesis of your article in the comments here, but you never actually get around to explaining it in your article. The closest you come is by asking what his motivations are.

    You’d have been better off to stick to that thesis in the article. Then you wouldn’t have diluted your argument and drawn out the very fair criticisms from Michael and me.

  7. If by “very fair criticisms” you mean (in his case), “go and build a rocket, and then we’ll talk,” or (in your case), “you are dealing with material beyond your comprehension” because I purposely omitted the word “supersonic” from my sentence about flight, then I think you should head over to Wikipedia and attempt to change the meaning of the word “fair”.

    I am saying that if the article were headlined “Why Is Everyone Hating On Elon Musk’s Hyperloop?” then neither of you would have bothered commenting.

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