When Elon Musk wants something, he often does it something. The PayPal founder wants to send people to space; hence, SpaceX. He wanted to invest in cleaner automobile technology; thus a Series A investment in Tesla. Now, he wants to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 30 minutes. Enter the Hyperloop.
The Hyperloop is Musk’s current project. It’s an elevated vactrain that would travel at around 600 miles per hour with top speeds closer to 800. It would run frequently between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and it would be cheap. Musk claims construction would run to only a few billion dollars with fares at $20 for the one-way trip. Is this dreaming or is this delusional?
Since unveiling his paper on it a few days ago [pdf], reaction has ranged from incredulous to giddy. Transportation advocates are stunned by Musk’s claims — often issued with no supporting evidence — and even those with a basic level of mathematical knowledge don’t quite understand how his ideas add up. Meanwhile, lay people are awed by the idea. It’s something we’ve never seen before, and it sounds like it could bridge great gaps in short order. Plus it’s way cheaper than that whole California High Speed Rail boondoggle or so the argument goes.
As much as I like to dream big — IND Second System anyone? — color me skeptical for a variety of reasons, most of which have been expressed elsewhere. James Sinclair issued a massive takedown, and Alon Levy, for instance, calls it a loopy idea. He dispenses with a lot of Musk’s equations, questions the way this structure could withstand earthquakes and generally wants to see evidence:
There is no systematic attempt at figuring out standard practices for cost, or earthquake safety (about which the report is full of FUD about the risks of a “ground-based system”). There are no references for anything; they’re beneath the entrepreneur’s dignity. It’s fine if Musk thinks he can build certain structures for lower cost than is normal, or achieve better safety, but he should at least mention how. Instead, we get “it is expected” and “targeted” language. On Wikipedia, it would get hammered with “citation needed” and “avoid weasel words.”
…Musk’s real sin is not the elementary mistakes; it’s this lack of context. The lack of references comes from the same place, and so does the utter indifference to the unrealistically low costs. This turns it from a wrong idea that still has interesting contributions to make to a hackneyed proposal that should be dismissed and forgotten as soon as possible.
I write this not to help bury Musk; I’m not nearly famous enough to even hit a nail in his coffin. I write this to point out that, in the US, people will treat any crank seriously if he has enough money or enough prowess in another field. A sufficiently rich person is surrounded by sycophants and stenographers who won’t check his numbers against anything.
Levy isn’t the only one casting doubt on it. USA Today interviewed some scientists who raise similar concerns, and Alexis Madrigal questions the details and land acquisition process. The list of problems goes on and on and on.
In other areas, rail advocates are dismayed because Musk is one of California’s highest profile entrepreneurs, and he is essentially throwing high speed rail under the bus (or, in this case, the Hyperloop). He claims he can do a better, and since he’s a Very Important Person, Californians who are still skeptical of HSR listen. Why should we spend billions on a proven but expensive technology when we can just let Musk — who doesn’t want much more to do with the Hyperloop idea anyway — build his futuristic travel pods? Why let something actually transformative come to being when we have nifty renderings?
Dreaming big and dreaming practically in this case are two separate outcomes, but they needn’t be. There is a place for ideas like Musk’s, but there is also a place for improving the current proven modes of transit as well. We can dream up larger networks and more efficient ways to move people through areas. But one should not come at the expense of another, and we should be able to recognize something for the fantasy that it is.
Last week, Eric Jaffe wrote on The Atlantic Cities that we should stop obsessing about the next big thing. We can’t give up dreaming, but we also, Jaffe writes, cannot let it “undermine our ability to address the problems of the present…In other words, we’re far better off with good expectations than great fantasies.” The Hyperloop fantasy is a great one, but so is the world of Back to the Future II where we all have flying cars within the next 26 months. But how do we get more cars off the roads tomorrow?