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Elon Musk's Hyperloop: A pipe dream?

Elon Musk's goal plainly is to attack California's high-speed rail project, but there's no evidence the Hyperloop would cost less. And it's not clear there's a pressing need for his system.

August 16, 2013|Michael Hiltzik
  • A drawing shows the conceptual plan for the Hyperloop, a solar-powered, 700-mph tubular transportation system designed by Tesla Motors and SpaceX chief Elon Musk. He estimates the Hyperloop would cost $6 billion to build.
A drawing shows the conceptual plan for the Hyperloop, a solar-powered,… (Elon Musk )

Visionary technological proposals generally trace a life cycle of three stages. First comes the thrill of the unveiling (the "gee-whiz" stage); then there's the hard work of research and development to convert rough sketches into practical form; finally comes the crash, when the original dream has to confront cold, hard reality.

Let's hope there aren't any passengers aboard when Elon Musk's Hyperloop hits stage three.

If you've been a sentient creature during the last week, you've heard something about the Hyperloop. The proposed transit system would carry 6 million passengers per year between Los Angeles and San Francisco at astonishingly minimal cost and speeds high enough to reduce the trip to 35 minutes. It's the brainchild of electric-car and spaceflight entrepreneur Elon Musk, who is irked that nothing better exists to meet his commuting needs between those two metropolises.

But as often happens when talented hard-chargers pursue their personal dreams, he may be answering the wrong question.

The Hyperloop has garnered scads of fawning publicity since Musk unveiled a 57-page outline last week. So has Musk, which may be the point. He's being praised for Big-Idea thinking, for discarding those 19th and 20th century transport technologies (cars, trains) to come up with something worthy of the 21st. He's lauded especially for proposing a way to circumvent the grubby regional politics that have ballooned the cost of the current answer to the L.A.-S.F. transport riddle, California's high-speed rail project, to $68 billion.

To hear Musk tell it, a suitable mass transit system would have to be safer, faster, cheaper, more convenient and more earthquake resistant than the alternatives of planes, cars and trains. The Hyperloop, he says, is "the right solution."

It's curious that he comes to that conclusion, because judging from his own proposal, the Hyperloop would be none of those things. There's no evidence that it would be cheaper than the high-speed rail project, and reason to believe it would cost more; it certainly couldn't be built for the $6-billion price tag Musk claims. As for the real issues of politics and technology that Musk waves away, in the real world they don't go away quietly.

The Hyperloop has two things going for it: the notion of going between Los Angeles and San Francisco in a half-hour in capsules propelled on cushions of air, which sounds awfully snazzy; and the fact that Elon Musk proposed it. But it's not clear that the first is an especially pressing need, except for people like Elon Musk. As for Musk himself, he's a serial entrepreneur with an impressive record that includes PayPal, the electric-car company Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, a space launch company.

But whether his skill at synthesizing existing technologies into new businesses in those fields translates into solving a problem of public infrastructure on this scale is unproven. One hint that he may be playing outside his comfort zone comes from his description of the Hyperloop as a "cross between Concorde, a rail gun and an air hockey table."

Concorde? The Anglo-French supersonic jet took some 20 years to get off the drawing boards. It came in at 15 times its original cost estimates, couldn't carry enough passengers to operate profitably and was mothballed after a catastrophic crash in 2000 underscored its myriad technological flaws. If that's the model for the Hyperloop, I'll stay home, thanks.

There's something mischievous about Musk's Hyperloop. He says it's not something he'd be willing to build himself, which raises the question of who he thinks should build it, and how the economics would change if it were a public project rather than the blue-sky musing of a Silicon Valley billionaire. In truth, the Hyperloop plan looks less like a starting point for a practical project than a road map for what Elon Musk would do if he could operate freely at the level of his own self-esteem.

"I would assume away all sorts of constraints if I were king," says James E. Moore II, director of the transportation engineering program at USC. In this case, "the institutional and economic barriers are so significant it's unlikely to come to fruition."

Numerous physicists, engineers and transportation experts have taken aim at Musk's white paper in the week since its unveiling, and many more undoubtedly will. It's proper to highlight a few of those issues.

For one thing, Musk's route map doesn't quite get passengers to San Francisco or Los Angeles; it stops at the East Bay, dodging the question of how much it would cost to build a bridge or tunnel crossing. (Almost certainly more than $6 billion alone.) At the south end, his map stops somewhere in the West Valley, which can be an hour short of downtown — on a good day.

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