Elon Musk is a very smart man.
The billionaire entrepreneur has spawned several successful companies, including Tesla and Space-X. He’s widely recognized as one of the visionaries in today’s tech landscape, with many putting him on-par with the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
Given this, it’s a bit odd to see Musk so aggressively market the Hyperloop, a concept that has not been built, or really tested, anywhere in the world. Yet, Musk set the Twitterverse on fire, by tweeting that he had received “verbal approval” for building a “Hyperloop” between New York and Washington. According to Musk, the new transportation option would allow passengers to travel between the two cities in just 29 minutes (compared with 3 ½ hours today). He claims, and has claimed in the past, that construction will commence soon and will be far cheaper and more cost effective than high speed rail travel. He has even gone so far as to draw comparison with high speed rail efforts that are underway today, seeing these as a waste of time and money.
Since Musk is not a neophyte, I can only conclude that he is just a brazen marketeer; eerily reminiscent of Lyle Lanley, the salesman who convinced the Town of Springfield to build an ill-advised and barely functional monorail. Like that 1993 Simpsons episode, Musk’s proposal has stolen the show; drawing coverage from policy-makers, the press and laypeople alike. Though his company claims that a “groundbreaking” can occur this year, there is almost no reason to believe that’s the case.
I’m not actually suggesting that Musk is a con-artist, of-course. He’s a successful entrepreneur with a long track record of innovation, but there are so many reasons to doubt that we will see a functioning Hyperloop anytime soon.
There’s No Master Plan
The most obvious reason to raise questions about the Hyperloop is the complete lack of planning documents.
Here on the East Coast, for example, there is no concrete masterplan for what a Hyperloop operation would entail. Ideally, such a master-plan would the following information:
- A proposed route, complete with station locations. Specific items to address here include:
- Will the Hyperloop be built via tunnels or above ground? Which portions of the route will be tunnels and which portions would be above ground?
- Will the Hyperloop leverage existing transit facilities (i.e. New York’s Penn Station) or will new transportation hubs be constructed to serve the route.
- For the above ground portions of the route, will the Hyperloop use existing right-of-way or will new ones have to be acquired.
- Information on operational logistics along with other basic facts and details.
- How much would a ride cost?
- How many people would it take to operate the system?
- What’s the cost of maintenance operation and upkeep
- What ancillary infrastructure would be required to keep the system up and running (i.e. depots, yards, repair shops)
- How much power would the system need to operate, and where will the power come from?
- Who would operate the service?
- Financial information.
- What’s the total cost of building the project?
- How much property would have to be condemned or acquired to build the proposed route?
- What’s the annual operating cost of the Hyperloop system, and how does it compare to existing rail and air travel facilities
A masterplan is typically the inaugural step for serious infrastructure proposals. Amtrak, by comparison, has presented detailed plans for high speed rail along the Northeast Corridor.
It’s worth noting that the answers to many of these questions are especially important given the fact that there is no Hyperloop in operation currently.
The Technology is Undeveloped and Unproven
Any master-plan would presume the presence of an established, reliable technology, but the Hyperloop isn’t that. To date, no passenger has ever taken a ride on a Hyperloop. The first built-to-scale test the Hyperloop took place only 6 months ago on a 500 meter test track. In the test, the capsule only went 70mph, a far cry from the supersonic promise of the scheme. Needless to say, quite a few tests need to be done before passengers are traveling hundreds of miles between major cities.
In fact, the Hyperloop remains somewhat theoretical. As many engineers have pointed out, significant questions remain about the underlying technology and sheer scale, which would be unlike anything we have today.
Even if a fully functional Hyperloop test-track was built, tested and vetted, there would still be quite a ways to go before we got to a system that is capable of transporting millions of people. Shervin Pishevar, the founder of “Hyperloop One,” compared its May test to a “Kitty-Hawk” moment. Yet, after the Wright Brother’s 1903 breakthrough, it took more than 65 years for aviation to become a normal way to travel.
In fact, transportation innovations, due to their dependence on public infrastructure, generally take much longer to unleash when compared to consumer goods like computers. The first automobile was built in 1886, but the country wasn’t re-engineered for vehicular transport until the 50’s and 60’s. The first public railway began operation in 1798, but it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that rail travel became ubiquitous.
Above: A Youtube video details all of the existing engineering challenges in implementing the Hyperloop
Government Officials Out of The Loop
Sources in the press confirm that Musk’s “verbal approval” tweet as most likely referencing positive conversations that were taking place within the White House; essentially, a Trump aide said “that’s a really cool idea.”
Musk has indicated that more approvals will occur rapidly, and a Boring company spokesperson claimed that the greenlight required for “breaking ground” would occur this year, but no one seems to have told officials from the various cities along the East Coast, where the Hyperloop would presumably serve;
The LA Times has a breakdown:
Elon Musk said Thursday that he has received “verbal government approval” — but not a formal go-ahead — for his newest, tunnel-digging venture to build an underground, high-speed transportation system connecting New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Less than two hours after his first tweets announcing the verbal approval, the billionaire entrepreneur qualified his statements, tweeting: “Still a lot of work needed to receive formal approval, but am optimistic that will occur rapidly.”
A Boring Co. spokesman later said in a statement that the company expected to secure the formal approvals necessary to break ground later this year.
A White House spokesman said there have been “promising conversations” with “Musk/Boring Co. executives” and that it was “committed to transformative infrastructure projects.”
When asked whether those conversations or the White House’s commitment to infrastructure projects amounted to a “verbal government approval,” the spokesman said the White House had nothing more to add to the statement.
A Boring Co. spokesman said in the statement that the company has had a number of “promising conversations” with local, state and federal government officials and that “with a few exceptions, feedback has been very positive.”
“We have received verbal support from key government decision-makers for tunneling plans, including a hyperloop route from New York to Washington, D.C.,” the spokesman said.
But officials from New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington said they have had no contact with Musk about his hyperloop plans.
“Nobody in City Hall, or any of our city agencies, has heard from Mr. Musk or any representatives of his company,” Ben Sarle, deputy press secretary for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, said in an emailed statement.
He said it would be “premature” to speculate on a regulatory process for this project since the mayor’s office knew nothing about the proposal, saying it would take more than a “quick ‘verbal approval’” to green light such a project.
Why it Matters
Above: Hyperloop hysteria threatens to distract attention from viable infrastructure projects
None of this would really matter if Musk were completely truthful about the nascent state of the technology. However, by continuing to present the Hyperloop as almost “shovel” ready, he’s inflicting real harm on current transit infrastructure efforts.
In 2013, Musk unveiled the Hyperloop to the world by claiming that would be superior to the then planned California High Speed Rail project. Musk claimed that the Hyperloop would a fraction of the cost and much faster than conventional bullet trains.
The entrepreneur’s bluster and bravado led to real world consequences.
Opponents of California’s HSR project latched onto the Hyperloop as a justification to halt the project. Conservative outlets assailed the high speed trains as “obsolete” thanks to Musk’s invention. Soon, there was even a ballot initiative designed to block bond funding for the HSR project.
Now, the same thing may happen on the East Coast. With Musk claiming that his Hyperloop out-perform conventional railways, some will inevitably ask why the country should spend time and money with Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor High Speed Rail proposal. These people, who potentially include top aides in the White House, have the power to delay or derail Amtrak’s efforts, in favor of completely unproven technology.
Don’t buy into the hype.
Featured image via Kevin Krejci on Flickr