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Hypin' the Hyperloop


Elon Musk has a dream: shuttling people, inside a tube much like the one you use at the drive-thru window at your local bank, from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes. At 700+ miles per hour. If that sounds like a science fiction concept, that’s because it is. But if anyone is capable of turning fiction into reality, it’s Musk, who has already figured out how to make relatively successful businesses out of electric vehicles and private space flight—two very young industries fraught with technical difficulties. Yesterday Musk unveiled an “alpha” plan for this tube transportation, called the Hyperloop, and explained how he got interested in this kind of transportation infrastructure project:

When the California “high speed” rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too. How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL – doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?…

The underlying motive for a statewide mass transit system is a good one. It would be great to have an alternative to flying or driving, but obviously only if it is actually better than flying or driving. 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?

If we are to make a massive investment in a new transportation system, then the return should by rights be equally massive.

Via Meadia knows little about how to keep hundreds of miles of tubing at low pressure, or how to launch rockets in to space, but we do have one thing in common with Musk: we think California’s high speed rail project is destined for failure. In fact, because of projects like the Hyperloop, the state’s massively expensive infrastructure project is going to be obsolete by the time it’s built (if that ever happens).

Musk was careful to note that he’s not actually planning on building the Hyperloop (though he did tell reporters that he “probably will” build a demonstration of the system, to be completed some time in the next three to four years). The designs are still very speculative at this point, but the idea speaks to the kind of vision that put a man on the moon or built the first automobile. Musk’s point—that if we’re going to spend massively on new infrastructure, it should be demonstrably worth it—is well taken.

That being said, we should be diverting more of our resources toward beefing up infostructure rather than infrastructure. The transition to a post-industrial economy entails new kinds of public works projects. In that economy we’ll be less concerned with building and manipulating things; we should likewise be more interested in the efficient transportation of ideas than of people.

[Elon Musk image courtesy of Brian Solis]

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  • gwvanderleun

    This is just the Seqway of the month. And will have a much shorter shelf life.

  • S.C. Schwarz

    The first comment, dismissive as it is, is unfortunately typical of the reaction I am seeing. For example, here is Tyler Cowan’s take (, and he is normally a thinker I respect.

    What happened to the country that built its first transcontinental railroad in six years? That built the Panama Canal? The interstate highway system?

    Admittedly the hyperloop is only a concept at this point, but what happened to the boldness and the confidence that used to enable us to make concepts like this real?

    Oh well, I guess I can visit China one day to experience modern transportation. How do you say “hyperloop” in Mandarin?

    • f1b0nacc1

      The railroad, canal, and highway were all fairly mundane technologies, it was the scale that made them significant. Suggesting that simply because an idea is innovative that it is automatically worthy of being taken seriously is simply silly, as is the hyperloop itself.
      I freely concede that I am no engineer, but I know enough about engineering and economics to know a pipe dream (rather apt, don’t you think?) when i see one. Musk has done some terrific things (SpaceX alone should garner him our respect), but even the greatest dreamers crash and burn sometimes. Consider Edison and his obsession with direct current, for instance…

      • S.C. Schwarz

        Well I am an engineer, a civil engineer in fact. I am not suggesting that we know enough about the hyperloop now to know if it’s workable or economic. I am suggesting that there is nothing inherently unreasonable about the concept, and the reflexive dismissals I am seeing are depressing.

        • f1b0nacc1

          “Inherently unreasonable”? Probably not…economically viable or even worth doing…also probably not. Just because a thing can be done, doesn’t mean that doing it is a particularly good idea.
          As for reflexive dismissals…I am open to being convinced, but arguments like “well, if we don’t do it, China will” won’t cut it. Show me how this makes sense economically, how it can be done in the real world (with interest group politics, regulatory overreach, etc.), and I am happy to listen. I rather doubt you can do this, but I would love to be proven wrong.

  • Alexander Scipio

    CA’s “bullet train [to nowhere]” is not about transportation: It’s about union jobs. The hyperloop wouldn’t create as many, so it won’t be approved by our (suicidal) Dem Legislature.

    Dem policies have nothing to do with progress. The Bullet Train is about union jobs. Obamacare is about three things, none of them healthcare: 1) reducing people to 30-hr weeks to drive a demand for an increase in Minimum Wage (and a permanent Dem majority), 2) unionizing all American healthcare workers and funneling those dues from the SEIU to the DNC (creating and a permanent Dem majority, 3) A step on the road to NHS – never a good HC solution – but a permanent Dem majority as everyone has now been conditioned to expect the gov to provide HC so that when OCare fails (as it was designed to do), we get NHS.

    Democrats don’t care about solutions – OR people; they only care about control.

  • Tom Servo


    It’s just a high speed train that will cost a lot more than current trains to build, and won’t have any bulk cargo capability. Oh yeah, that makes sense.

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