Elon Musk, maker of electric cars and launcher of civilian spaceships, has a plan for a new transportation system that could make California’s massive high-speed rail undertaking a failure at launch. It’s called the Hyperloop, and it plans to whisk passengers in car-sized capsules through enclosed tubes at great speed, shortening the LA to San Francisco commute down to a mere half of an hour. Musk describes this plan as a “cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table.” Believe it or not, Musk has a company—ET3—that is already working on this. Yahoo News reports on ET3’s pipe dream, called Evacuated Tube Transport:
ET3’s Hyperloop-like project already has a number of schematics and plans already in place. They claim an automobile-sized, six-passenger capsule constructed for “outer space” travel conditions could easily reach speeds of 4,000 miles per hour on longer journeys across the country or across continents. In theory, this elevated tube system could be built for a tenth of the cost of high-speed rail and a quarter the cost of a freeway. The projected cost for a passenger to travel from Los Angeles to New York is $100.
If the Hyperloop or Evacuated Tube Trasnsport was built and succeeded, it could make California’s current high-speed rail project obsolete. With a budgeted cost of $70 billion, the high-speed system currently under development would take passengers from San Francisco to L.A. in three hours, potentially six times slower than the Hyperloop.
We’re not necessarily holding our breath for our nation’s transportation infrastructure to be converted into a series of tubes. This kind of scheme has long been a staple of science fiction, and the engineering obstacles between its conception and its production are not inconsiderable. But what the story does illustrate is the hazard of making massive infrastructure bets as if technology is standing still. By the time California’s high speed rail finally comes on line, our idea of what high speed transportation should be may very well have dramatically shifted.
VM‘s preference would be to see more investment in our nation’s infostructure instead. Beefing up broadband, promoting telework, taking advantage of driverless cars: these all seem like much smarter (and cheaper) bets on how to meet the demands of future generations. The information economy substitutes the movement of information for the movement of meat; California’s expensive white elephant of a high speed rail system is a more effective method of transferring the public’s money to contractors and unions than of moving people.